Proponents say a North Queensland renewable energy power station which sat idle for three years is symptomatic of the problems hampering new electricity generation.

Key points:

  • Queensland’s north-west has historically suffered from unreliable electricity
  • A renewable energy generator was forced to sit idle for three years before exporting to the national grid
  • Proponents cite unreliable and limited transmission as holding the region back

The 50-megawatt Kennedy Energy Park (KEP), west of Townsville, was Australia’s first to combine a solar farm, 12 wind turbines, and 2MW of battery storage when completed in late 2018.

But project manager Martin Vries said a series of complex issues in connecting to the national grid that followed highlighted the lack of reliable network capacity in the region.

man in office of renewable energy farm

Martin Vries says the past few years have been frustrating for the company.(ABC North Queensland: Tom Major )

“To unlock all the potential in the region you need transmission, that’s the key thing,” he said.

The park is exporting about 10MW of its capacity and hopes to improve this to 25MW, or 50 per cent, by Christmas.

The half owner of KEP, Windlab, spent $160 million developing the generator in a significant boost to the local economy during the height of the district’s drought.

But problems with connecting to the grid led to legal troubles with contractors, and the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) stated that agreed performance standards for transmission had not been met for the generator to begin exporting power.

That resulted in Windlab writing-down the value of KEP by $29.4 million last year.

Despite the CSIRO identifying the region as ideal for electricity generation — with 320 days of sunshine per year and reliable wind — new projects are off the table until adequate transmission is built.

“Given the issues our neighbours, the Hughenden solar farm, and us have had on this line I think the opportunity is very limited,” Mr Vries said.

Big plans for capacity

The CopperString connection, a 1,000-kilometre transmission line between Mount Isa and Townsville, has been mooted for decades, attracting $330 million in Gillard government funding back in 2010.

But the project was abandoned the following year when Xstrata, then-owner of Mount Isa Mines, decided to sign a contract with a local gas-power generator instead.

No power connection between the national grid at Julia Creek and the mining towns of Cloncurry and Mount Isa exists, more than a century since mining began in the region.

map of proposed powerline

The proposed CopperString 2.0 route would broadly follow the existing Northern rail line and Flinders Highway between Townsville and Mount Isa.(Supplied)

In the years since CopperString’s initial failure, the company has commissioned multiple reports citing the economic benefits of secure power for the region.

Chief executive Joseph O’Brien said the electricity landscape had changed, improving the viability of the $1.75 billion line which he hoped to finalise funding for early next year.

“The last three years has been an intensive process completing studies and strategic assessment with NAIF [Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility], and we’re advanced on grid connection negotiations,” he said.

businessman in brisbane office

Joseph O’Brien insists the powerline’s feasibility stacks up in 2021.(ABC News: Curtis Rodda)

With an ambitious plan for 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030 and the state less than halfway to that mark, pressure is mounting on the state government to boost flatlining investment in electricity generation.

A recent report from the state’s auditor-general was critical of the government’s ability to meet the 50 per cent target.

The auditor-general stated there were few locations with network conditions that would allow new generators to operate, adding that network instability was a major problem facing new projects.

The state government’s present plan for a renewable energy zone in north Queensland focuses on the Townsville-Cairns corridor.

But Resources Minister Scott Stewart said his government had backed CopperString 2.0 to the tune of $15 million and supported more reliable power for exploration and new mines in the north-west.

The federal government also pledged $11 million last year to assist the project to reach financial close.

Mr O’Brien said two catastrophic power outages in the Mount Isa region this year had halted the engine room of the state’s minerals production.

“The large players down to the smaller miners face a real challenge compared to the Bowen Basin and the Hunter Valley’s national grid connections,” he said.

wind turbine in outback queensland

The wind turbines at KEP have been barely operating since construction was completed in late-2018.(ABC Rural: Tom Major)

Local support solid

Business owners like Hughenden Chamber of Commerce president and metal fabricator Pete Fornasier have scored contracts to supply services and build equipment for previous power projects.

Mr Fornasier employed five new workers during KEP’s construction in 2017 and had since custom-made wind monitors for a testing site near the township.

“With the advent of the CopperString line they’re definitely talking more turbines in the area and that’ll bring a lot more people.

“I’m sure businesses, local businesses, will get a lot out if it again.”

man standing in metal workshop

Pete Fornasier says the wind and solar farms saved the town’s economy during tough drought years last decade.(ABC North Queensland: Tom Major)

Mayor Jane McNamara said if CopperString 2.0 and the associated development of mining and renewable energy projects progressed it could revitalise an economy formerly based on pastoral industries and the railway.

With an array of investors and negotiations underway with all but two of the landholders along the proposed corridor, the company says construction could begin in 2022.

Companies including metals refiner Korea Zinc and state-owned Ergon Energy have live investment options with CopperString.

“Both state and federal governments have been very supportive. However, the real test is ahead for them to make the commitments required to facilitate construction commencing,” Mr O’Brien said.

Renewable energy hotspot grinds to a halt through lack of transmission infrastructure
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