US solar giant and Rio Tinto agree on Australian-first solar project


ONE of the world’s biggest solar panel makers, US-based First Solar, is set to next month start building a $23.4 million solar power plant at Weipa after sealing a power purchase deal with miner Rio Tinto as well as federal funding.

It is the first time in Australia that a mining company has adopted renewable energy to power a mining operation.

Rio Tinto said the 6.7 megawatt solar photovoltaic solar farm would provide power to the Rio Tinto Alcan Weipa bauxite mine, processing facilities as well as the township on the Western Cape York Peninsula.

“We expect the use of solar power will reduce Weipa’s annual carbon dioxide emissions by around 1600 tonnes,” a Rio Tinto Alcan official said.

First Solar and its partner, Queensland-based solar power company Ingenero, are investing $12.1 million in the project, with a total of $11.3 million conditionally committed by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.

ARENA was set up by the Gillard government in 2012 to independently manage Australia’s renewable energy program. The Abbott government wants to abolish the agency but would need to pass a repeal Act through parliament.

An ARENA spokesman yesterday said projects with funding agreements in place with the agency “will not be affected by funding changes” in future and it “continues to be business as usual for ARENA”.

The project’s first stage will be completed in January, with 18,000 PV solar panels forming a 1.7 megawatt solar farm that will be supplemented by diesel generation.

By the end of stage two, the solar farm will also have battery storage, which will mean up to 100 per cent of diesel-generated electricity can be replaced by solar power.

Jack Curtis, First Solar’s vice president of business development for Asia-Pacific, said: “First Solar is delighted to be working with Rio Tinto, ARENA and Ingenero on this landmark project that demonstrates how solar PV can be used to power the resources sector.”