Sun Cable, formerly known as PowerLink, is an ambitious idea that involves sending solar power via an undersea cable 4,200 kilometers (2,610 miles) from Darwin, Australia, to Singapore. The cable needs to pass through the territorial waters of Indonesia, however, and it appears that delays in getting the necessary approvals from the Indonesian government in a timely manner caused a falling out between two Australian billionaires — Mike Cannon-Brookes and Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest — who each owned 25% of the project. The company entered voluntary receivership in January of this year.
Plans have been in the making for years to make the Northern Territory of Australia one of the largest solar energy producers in the world. And why not? It is sparsely populated (0.18 persons per square kilometer) and drenched in sunshine most of the year. NIMBY concerns are largely irrelevant in a place where there are few backyards.
Cannon-Brooks, who owns Grok Investments, and Forrest, who owns Squadron Energy, agreed that the Northern Territory was a prime location for producing solar power, but disagreed on what to do with it. Forrest was more interested in using it to make green hydrogen and ammonia and stated publicly that the plan to build an underwater cable was not financially sound.
“Following a comprehensive technical and financial analysis, that included listening to customer feedback, Squadron Energy has concluded that Sun Cable’s Australia-Asia PowerLink project is not commercially viable,” Squardon chairman John Hartman said in January. “However, Squadron Energy continues to believe in the vision for a game changing solar and battery project in the North Territory’s Barkly region, including the proposed connection to Darwin.”
Sun Cable Is Revived
Now according to Time, Cannon-Brooks has secured control over Sun Cable and taken it out of administration. He claims to have invested AUS$65 million in the project while it was in administration.
Advanced talks with authorities in both Singapore and Indonesia have resumed, Grok Investments said on September 7. The company intends to present a proposal to the Energy Market Authority of Singapore for a conditional energy import license this month, it said. Negotiations are ongoing with Indonesia to get its permission for the undersea cable to pass through its waters.
The revised plans envisage building a manufacturing plant in the Northern Territory to make the high voltage underwater cable needed to serve both the project and energy transmission developments globally. The plan “has all the component parts to make the next great Australian infrastructure initiative possible,” Cannon-Brookes said in a statement last week.
“There’s huge upside for both Australia and our neighbors. The next commodities boom in this country will not be founded on coal,” he told the press. “It will be founded on the generation and export of our renewable energy. Sun Cable is a world changing project.”
“We’re focused on investing in climate tech and climate transition to create a better tomorrow,” he said, adding that companies such as Sun Cable “can deliver major carbon dioxide reduction and outsized investment returns.” He acknowledged that “Sun Cable’s projects are ambitious. However, this ambition is proportionate to the challenges and opportunities of the renewable energy transition.”
“So while I acknowledge some people might think it’s too ambitious, we don’t believe it is. Frankly, the technology exists to make this happen. We’re extremely confident that modern cable technology can reliably carry more electricity over long distances and through deeper waters than was possible in the past.”
Darwin, Then Singapore
The first stage of the newly reinvigorated project is a proposal to build a 900 MW solar farm to serve industries in the Darwin area of Australia. Next, another 1.7 GW of solar capacity would be installed to supply the undersea cable to Singapore. Early cost estimates were in the range of AUS$30 billion, Ultimately, the project aims to add a further 3 GW for Australian customers.
Sun Cable is being promoted as a way for parts of Asia to break their dependence on fossil fuels, particularly in places with limited space for solar and wind farms. Original developers saw the proposal as part of a potential supergrid spanning Japan to India. Today, Grok Investments is saying the Sun Cable project is “well-progressed and in a strong position to deliver the AAPowerLink project” to Singapore via Indonesia.
So, the order of progression for the project is now 900 MW for the Darwin area, followed by connecting the cable to Singapore a few years from now — probably 2032. Thereafter, the solar capacity in the Northern Territory would eventually reach 6 GW. A significant amount of battery storage — roughly 40 MWh — would be included to keep the energy flowing after the sun sets each day. If all that happens, it would make the solar park in Northern Territory the largest solar power facility in the world.
Jeremy Kwong-Law, the chief executive of Grok Ventures, said the company has “a high degree of confidence” that SunCable and its power link would get the required funding as project milestones are reached. The company will also continue talks with the Indonesian government to obtain a license to lay the cable through its territorial waters.
Grok Ventures said Sun Cable had already received expressions of interest for about six times more solar power to Darwin than the planned 900 MW and more customer interest in Singapore for as much as 2.5 GW of power. That would exceed the capacity of the planned undersea cable by 50%, suggesting a second cable might be needed in the future. The Singapore government has indicated it would like to import at least 4 GW of renewable energy by 2035.
So what is this Sun Cable deal all about? For over a century, Australia has been one of the largest exporters of coal to world markets. A decade ago, one of its officials bragged the country had enough coal to meet the needs of civilization for a thousand years. While that may be true, some have noticed that the Great Barrier Reef is dying, largely due to burning all that coal. While Australia could continue exporting coal, doing so would be self-defeating, as soon there would be no people left alive to enjoy the benefits derived from burning it.
The sun is the ultimate source of life on Earth. In theory, covering a small portion of the Earth with solar panels would provide more than enough electricity to meet the needs of all humans many times over. The problem is not making it. The problem is distributing it and keeping it flowing during the nighttime hours when the sun is busy doing its thing on the other side of the Earth.
Some people want to cover the Sahara desert with solar panels and use all that lovely electricity to power Europe. Cannon-Brooks wants to do much the same thing to power Australia and some of its neighbors.
Andrew Forrest is caught up in the dream of using solar power to make hydrogen which can then be transformed into ammonia. Ammonia, in theory, can be pumped into tankers and shipped around the world to places where it can be converted back into hydrogen to decarbonize industrial processes such as cement and steel-making.
In the final analysis, both men have the same dream — harnessing the power of the sun to supply emissions-free energy to the world. Both think in large format terms, and there is probably a place for their ideas in the future of energy. But is there not also a place for the production of local clean energy sources? All this moving of electricity across continents and beneath oceans is very expensive. It smacks of the globalization dream that has been tarnished considerably over the past few years.
We here at CleanTechnica are not billionaires and so we don’t think the way billionaires do — grand schemes that will impact billions of people. We like to think there are plenty of ways to provide clean energy to people in all sorts of small ways — microgrids, minigrids, solar windows, rooftop solar, geothermal — as well as reducing the demand for electricity by promoting energy efficient solutions like heat pumps. Every electron that isn’t needed is an electron that doesn’t have to be generated, stored, and distributed.
We also worry about energy security. If you lived in Singapore, would you be content knowing your electricity is being supplied by a 4000 km long undersea cable? Remember what happened to the Nord Stream methane gas pipeline? Who provides security for that cable, and at what cost?
Big dreams are the stuff of legends, but small, efficient, local dreams need to have a place in the overall plan to electrify everything everywhere as well. They don’t get as much attention from the press, but that doesn’t make them any less important.
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