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Australia to get its first utility-scale solar plant

Solar plant that will be built in partnership by First Solar, GE Energy, and Verve Energy to support a seawater desalination plant expansion in Western Australia.

First Solar, GE Energy Financial Services, and Verve Energy announced today a partnership to build Australia's first utility-scale solar plant.

At 10 megawatts, Greenough River Solar Farm will be the largest operating solar plant in the country, and the solar energy it generates will be put to a very specific use.

All of its energy will go toward supporting a seawater desalination plant in Western Australia currently under expansion.

The Southern Seawater Desalination Plant in Binningup, Australia, which is run by the WA Water Corporation, has signed a 15-year contract to purchase all of the solar energy generated from the solar farm.

The success of the desalination plant is key to staving off a water crisis in Australia, which has not seen the rainfall needed to support its growing population in Western Australia, including the Perth metropolitan area. In early August, it was announced that the desalination plant capacity would have to be doubled within a year to make up for a lack of rainfall in the area, and meet the expected water demands of 2012 and 2013.

"The expansion of the SSDP was necessary because we can no longer rely on rainfall run-off into our dams as a major source of drinking water. This was never more apparent than at the end of the 2010 winter which was the driest since records began. We had to act decisively as a government and take direct action now. This decision is a major step in providing security to our water supplies even in the driest of years," said Simone Knox, Australian minister for water, in a statement.

When the expansion is complete the desalination plant is expected to generate approximately 50 gigaliters (over 13 billion gallons) of drinking water annually.

"Last year only 13 billion liters flowed into the dams, which is a fraction of the volume of water we rely on from the dams to meet supply. This year, we have also only had around 13 billion liters of inflow with the winter months two thirds over. Normally we would expect around 36 billion liters by this time of year," according to the WA Water Corp.

GE Energy Financial Services and Verve Energy will each own a 50 percent stake in the solar plant.

First Solar will provide 150,000 of its photovoltaic modules, as well as provide the engineering design, construction, and maintenance of the 10-megawatt solar plant.

The project is part of the Australian federal government's plan for the country to be on 20 percent renewable energy by 2020.