World’s Largest Solar Project Might Change How We Think About Power

Sun Cable is developing the world's largest solar energy infrastructure network.

Solar panels at a solar farm in Australia
Solar panels at an experimental solar farm at the University of Queensland in Gatton. David Trood / Getty Images

Bigger isn’t always better. Except, sometimes, maybe it is.

When I first started writing for Treehugger back in 2006, it felt like almost every other day a renewables advocate would tell me exactly how much land it would take to power the whole of the United States with solar. While the stat was interesting in a nerdy sort of way, it also felt like an abstract concept with no real-world value. After all, most solar at the time consisted either of small, rooftop arrays, or a small number of utility-scale solar farms with capacity in the range of tens or, just maybe, hundreds of megawatts.

Gradually, however, that started to change. Whether it was solar towers in the desert or bee-friendly solar farms, we started to see the scale and ambition of projects grow as technologies got cheaper.

Still, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything like the Australia-based company Sun Cable. Not only are they developing the “world’s largest solar farm and battery storage facility” – consisting of some 15,000 hectares of photovoltaic panels with a capacity of 10GW, as well as a 33 GWh battery storage facility. But they are also planning to dedicate a good chunk of that capacity (3GW) to offering dispatchable power that’s transported from Australia’s Northern Territory along a 4,500-kilometer high-voltage, direct current (HVDC) transmission system across the ocean to Singapore. If all goes well, by 2027 the project could be supplying as much as 20% of Singapore’s electricity needs and helping it to wean itself off from expensive natural gas imports.

The Northern Territory government has awarded Sun Cable "major project status," which means it should benefit significantly from coordinated government approvals and other logistical support. According to a profile of the project that ran in the Washington Post in August of last year, however, there’s no guarantee yet that the $16 billion price tag will ever pay off from a financial perspective. Indeed, as far as I can tell, the Singaporean government has yet to sign off as a partner or a customer.

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t yet fully grasp the scale of what we’re talking about here, and I am not sure about the feasibility (or not) of such ambitious mega-projects. That said, the world needs to radically speed up its transition to a low carbon energy system, and it needs to start that process yesterday. Given that Singapore – like most of the world – is signed up to the Paris Agreement, and yet its current carbon targets are rated as “highly insufficient” by Climate Action Tracker, I would imagine that the country’s leaders will be watching with interest how the project shapes up.

In many ways, the moment reminds me of how offshore wind was often talked about when I moved from Britain in the mid-2000s. With only a handful of projects completed at the time, there was a lot of breathless enthusiasm for larger-scale development, but it was hard to distinguish how much of that potential would ever really come to be realized. Now, only 15 years later, UK emissions have fallen to levels not seen since the Victorian Era, and the 10.5 GW of installed offshore wind capacity has played a significant role in making that happen. (That figure is set to rise to 27.5 GW by 2026.)

Not only has offshore wind become an accepted and celebrated feature of the country’s energy infrastructure, but it has also – I believe – helped shape the political and cultural discourse about climate and renewables. While naysayers could once argue that it’s "too expensive," and it will "cost too many jobs," now they have to contend with the fact that it’s already been proven to work.

If Sun Cable really can deliver on its promises (which would single-handedly match the UK’s current offshore wind capacity) then it would drastically change the face of how energy is produced and consumed across an entire region. Of course, it would radically slash emissions too. Yet I can’t help feeling that its most important contribution would be in changing the politics of energy. By practically and prominently demonstrating that the future lies with low carbon technologies, projects like Sun Cable can finally and permanently put the old, false economy-or-climate canard to rest.

Here’s hoping that Sun Cable knocks it out of the park, and that they are the first of many more such projects to come.