The southern stretches of the Monaro Highway make for a wholesome pastoral drive, with fields full of cows and golden grass swaying in soft breezes. The road winds around hills and dams, then tips up and over a crest to reveal an unexpected sight: thousands of solar panels shining in the harsh Australian sun.
This is the Royalla Solar Farm, a paddock holding tens of thousands of solar photovoltaic modules that together are capable of powering 4500 Canberra homes. Despite being part of Australia's smallest territory, Royalla is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the ACT's solar accomplishments.
It's been called the 'Solar Highway'. A 45 kilometer stretch of road with four major solar installations along its length, renewable energy powerhouses that are conspicuous for their absence across most of this sun-soaked country. Yet in this part of Australia, it's the norm.
It's just one part of the South East Region of Renewable Energy Excellence, or SERREE initiative. One of SERREE's main projects is something called the Renewable Energy Trail, a set of landmarks for people who like to hunt down renewable energy plants in their spare time.
While I was in Canberra one weekend, I decided to embark on my own solar pilgrimage down this renewable trail.
The Solar Highway is a 'tourist attraction' for a very specific type of person. I certainly didn't run into any other travellers visiting the sites along Canberra's eastern boundary during my time there. But for many Australians solar power is becoming increasingly attractive, even if they wouldn't go as far as spending their weekends hunting down rural solar farms.
When it comes to your everyday Aussie, in fact, we have more enthusiasm for solar power than any other country in the world. That's what the numbers would suggest, at least.
Australia has the highest rate of household solar in the world, with more than 15 per cent of Aussie households having their own panels. This is more than double that of the next highest country, Belgium, which has only seven per cent. In individual states like South Australia and Queensland, the number is higher than 30 per cent.
Yet when you factor in all methods of solar generation, Australia suddenly drops down the list to end up in sixth place. Australia has half as much solar capacity per capita than the leading country, Germany. Without taking population into account, China has more solar capacity than Australia by a factor of eight. In fact China added three times Australia's total capacity in new installations in just one year.
So where does this huge discrepancy come from?
What Australia is missing is large scale solar - solar farms and installations capable of pumping renewable energy into the grid at utility scale. If you're wondering just how little uptake large scale solar has in Australia, consider this figure: a staggering 82 per cent of Australia's total solar generation comes from rooftop panels on people's homes. In some states, large scale solar is virtually nonexistent.
As a country, we lag behind where we should be with solar. Furthermore, as a country with an unrelentingly sunny climate and vast stretches of uninhabited desert, there's really no acceptable excuse for our lack of action on large scale solar installations. This is why the ACT's solar highway is so oddly compelling to explore - it's a neat little slice of what a renewable Australia might look like.
Far in the north of Canberra is the first stop on the solar highway. With a modest 2.3MW capacity and a total of 7340 modules, the Mount Majura solar farm pales in comparison to its larger brethren in the south. It's not even technically on the same highway, sitting so far north that the Monaro has since turned into the Majura Parkway, but it's still a nice kick off for this renewable road trip. The solar farm sits in a picturesque location between lush pine forests and the vineyards of Mount Majura winery, an odd rectangle of land created when a new highway was built a hundred meters west of the old road.
Mount Majura may be small in scale, but it shows what can be done with those weird, empty bits of land beside highways. Imagine how many similar patches of highway no man's land are just waiting for the infrastructure to generate a little chunk of renewable energy.
This particular installation also makes the most of its compact size - the arrays are fully tracking, meaning the panels move on a self-powered motor throughout the day to follow the sun and extract every last drop of solar energy available. Mount Majura was even the first installation in Australia to use this kind of self-powered, single-axis tracking system. It's making a small dent in the territory's clean energy production, able to power up to 615 homes.
Further south an interesting side trip detours off the solar highway, heading right through central Canberra to visit the ANU Big Dish - the largest parabolic solar thermal dish concentrator in the world. While it's generally known as The Big Dish, there are actually two dishes sitting pretty out the back of ANU: the original prototype SG3 and the updated model SG4.
300 of the latter model were once intended for a large scale solar thermal installation in Whyalla, almost ten years ago. Before they could even be manufactured however, Whyalla's proposed Solar Oasis project fell through due to a number of issues - including the lack of a suitable energy storage technology.
Tesla's vice-president for energy products, Lyndon Rive, yesterday announced that Tesla would be capable of fixing South Australia's electricity problems "within 100 days" if asked.
Since then solar thermal projects have been few and far between in Australia. While it was solar thermal that powered Australia's first ever solar farm at White Cliffs, the technology has since fallen out of favour, largely replaced by modern photo-voltaic panels. In fact, Whyalla has been chosen as the site for a new 120MW photo-voltaic farm to be constructed starting this year, which would be one of the largest in Australia.
At the time of writing, Australia's largest operational solar farm lives in Nyngan, NSW. With a capacity of 102MW, the Nyngan farm dwarfs Australia's other completed installations, with the next largest only half that. The next stop in our tour of the ACT's Solar Highway is still up there with the big boys however. Sitting in a comfortable fifth on the list of Australia's largest solar generators is Mugga Lane Solar Farm.
Mugga Lane sits just off the Monaro Highway, and also hosts a waste and recycling plant beside the much newer solar farm. Interestingly, Mugga Lane was also the only site along this road that boasted a SERREE Renewable Energy Trail-branded informational sign. The new-looking sign gives a few technical details - Mugga Lane hosts 48,412 modules, some tracking, some fixed. It has a capacity of 12.85MW all up and with all this it's capable of powering 2500 homes a year. Hosted on pastoral land on the corner of one of the more trafficked sections of the Monaro Highway, Mugga Lane is one of the more visible solar farms in the ACT, perhaps even in all of Australia.
Of course it's no coincidence that so many of Australia's largest solar farms are clustered in Australia's smallest territory. Where the federal government's policy on renewables is vague and its clean energy targets soft, the territory that plays host to these power games of national politics has quietly promised to source 100 per cent of its energy from renewables by 2020. It's well on track to reach that ambitious target, too.
A series of dramatic events over the past year, most notably the September statewide blackout in South Australia, have revealed an electricity system under strain, and left many Australians worried about the reliability of their power supply.
While the ACT's 2020 initiatives extend to wind, hydro and efficient energy use in general, its solar achievements are perhaps the most remarkable. Despite its tiny footprint in Australia, the ACT has more large scale solar capacity than any state other than NSW. Large scale refers to any installation over 100kW, but the ACT also hosts a full three out of Australia's seven solar farms over 10,000kW, or 10MW.
The Solar Highway was the result of one of the ACT government's initiatives for working towards this ambitious goal, a competitive auction process that aimed to stimulate investment in ACT-based renewables while keeping that electricity as affordable as possible. One such auction in 2012 resulted in the building of two of the four farms along the Monaro Highway, including ACT's biggest, Royalla Solar Farm.
Peeking over a crest after another short drive south, Royalla hugs the ACT side of the border with NSW. Its panels glitter in the sun, fitting neatly into a bend in the highway on a broad, flat plain. Unlike the others, almost all of its 83,600 modules are visible from the road. Commissioned in 2014, Royalla is the oldest solar farm on the highway - in fact it's the only one that's even been around long enough to be visible on Google Maps' satellite imaging.
With a capacity of 20MW it was the largest solar farm in Australia at the time it was built. These days it's fallen to fourth place, after three behemoth farms were built in NSW in the interceding years. But it's no less impressive to stumble upon on that winding country road, a literal shining beacon of renewable energy on the outskirts of Canberra. The energy it produces each year is enough to power 4500 Canberra homes.
For the last stop on this tour, I continue down the Monaro into the southern reaches of the ACT, now deep into true country territory despite leaving Canberra's city centre barely half an hour ago. Williamsdale is the newest installation on the solar highway. It's so new that Google can't even direct me there, and it's only thanks to the directions on SERREE's website that I even knew it exists. I have to drive over a cattle grid and down a dirt road to get to a good vantage on it.
I arrived at Williamsdale close to noon to a curious sight: all 35,540 modules were horizontal, pointing straight upwards to catch all the noonday sun they can. Williamsdale is another solar farm fitted with a single-axis tracking system, but without that distinctive 45 degree tilt, solar panels look surprisingly different.
Williamsdale's tracking features make it a little more efficient than its older neighbour up in Royalla. While it only has a capacity of 11.2MW, little over half of Royalla's, Williamsdale is still capable of powering up to 3500 homes.
Four solar farms, 40 minutes, 45 kilometres, 17,4892 PV modules and 11,115 homes powered - almost 8% of Canberra houses.
The solar highway is a little pocket of hope in a country that seems determined to ignore renewable energy until it's too late. While what has been done in the ACT is a fantastic start, it's not nearly enough.
Australia's largest solar farm - at least twice as big as all others in the country - still doesn't even meet the 150MW minimum to make it onto Wikipedia's listing. Even though solar is arguably the most recognisable form of renewable energy generation to the general public, it only makes up a paltry 2.5 per cent share of Australia's electricity mix.
Yet while the implementation of solar is incredibly low, the solar potential in Australia is staggering. Compare the modeled solar potential of Australia to the current world leader in solar generation, China:
It's enough to make you wonder why we're only using a tiny proportion of that potential energy - especially when you consider that most of Australia's large solar plants are clustered in the areas with the lowest solar irradiation. Compare it to APVI's map of large scale solar projects in Australia:
It's not all bad news for Australia, of course. Queensland has seven separate solar PV farms over 100MW in various stages of planning and construction, spearheaded by what is currently the largest planned project, the 140MW Aramara Solar Farm. South Australia has 120MW going up at Whyalla, and this year's Budget included up to $110 million for a solar thermal plant at Port Augusta. But on a global scale, these are relatively small measures.
In the 2017-18 Federal Government, the government is making $110 million of its $1.6 billion of spending available to kickstart private investment in a solar thermal plant in Port Augusta in South Australia.
The largest solar farm in the world is the Kurnool Ultra Mega Solar park in India, with a whopping 900MW capacity installed. That's not counting a further 100MW still under construction - when finished, Kurnool will have a capacity of 1000MW, a full gigawatt. This single project has a capacity equal to all projects currently being planned for Queensland. Australia is falling behind while countries like India and China are stepping up to lead a global renewable energy revolution.
A live view of the electricity being generated in Australia, by state (ACT is included under NSW).
Currently only 6 per cent of Australia's solar power is being generated at large scale facilities. While there's some capacity in the middle 10kW to 100kW range, Australia's solar production is overwhelmingly driven by regular, everyday people - and a single road in Canberra. Let's hope it's enough to inspire more.