ARENA powers up $100m solar challenge

Brandon How

Utility-scale solar energy projects are the focus of a new federally-funded $100 million global innovation challenge targeting technologies that lower the cost of installation, operation, and maintenance.

The Australian Renewable Energy Agency-funded (ARENA) Solar ScaleUp Challenge, announced on Wednesday, will support late-stage prototypes, pilots, demonstrations and deployment projects across three focus areas.

The challenge drives towards ARENA’s Ultra Low Cost Solar ambition of lowering the cost of installing solar energy systems to 30 cents per watt and reaching a levelised cost of electricity (LCOE) below $20 per MWh by 2030 – a measure for comparing generation costs of different technologies.

The challenge, to be delivered in partnership with the Greenhouse Challenge online innovation platform, will also facilitate connections between innovators and tech developers, financiers, OEMs and other stakeholders involved in project construction and operation.

Greenhouse ceased operation in 2009 following a federal government review of climate change programs but re-launched in 2023 with grant funding from the New South Wales government. It has previously run similar global challenges, such as the NearZero Steel Challenge.

The Solar ScaleUp challenge is targeting physical and digital technologies in three priority areas: reducing ‘balance of plant’ and installation costs and timelines, reducing operations and maintenance costs, and reducing the levelised cost of energy.

Balance of plant refers to solar photovoltaic (PV) system technologies other than the solar panel, such as inverters, mounting, racking, trackers, and transformers.

While the challenge is focused on technologies with utility-scale solar PV applications, “smaller-scale projects could include behind-the-meter applications and may be either grid connected or off-grid applications”, according to Greenhouse.

The announcement of the challenge follows ARENA’s huge baseline funding boost of $1.9 billion and the $1.7 billion Future Made in Australia Innovation Fund.

Solar ScaleUp is distinct from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency’s (ARENA)-administered $1 billion Solar Sunshot program which focuses on supporting the manufacture of solar PV and the commercialisation of local solar PV innovation.

However, the challenge is expected to complement Solar SunShot by “building a pipeline of solar PV innovation that can be adopted by manufacturers along the supply chain and project developers”, according to ARENA.

ScaleUp projects must involve technology that is at least at the initial prototype stage (technology readiness level four). Projects may include a pilot manufacturing component.

ARENA chief executive Darren Miller said that achieving the ultra low-cost solar target is “critical for reducing electricity costs and decarbonising hard-to-abate sectors such as industry and transport”.

“It is also a key factor in Australia becoming a renewable energy superpower, a vision which would see Australia playing a major role in supplying our key trading partners with low emissions products such as green iron and hydrogen.”

ARENA launched the ultra low-cost solar white paper in July 2023, which set the 30-30-30 ambition to reach 30 per cent solar module efficiency and an installed cost of 30 cents per watt by 2030.

This would require reducing the LCOE of electricity to $20 per MW and “could help unblock a total installed capacity of 1TW by 2050”.

Submissions to the program open on June 22 and will run until August 14. An evaluation period that runs until October will follow.

Top teams from the showcase will be invited to apply for grants through ARENA, with award decisions to be made as early as December 2024.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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