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By Brad Thompson

Fledgling solar energy company has won the support of a key player in the lithium boom and the ear of the federal government as it advances plans for a multi-billion dollar subsea cable supplying renewable energy to Indonesia.

Pilbara Solar, part owned by the Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation, has asked for development funding from the Commonwealth. The project has been referred to the Northern Australian Infrastructure Facility (NAIF).

YMAC chief executive Simon Hawkins has been invited to present the case for Pilbara Solar at an exclusive NAIF gathering in Cairns early next week, which is expected to include major international investors.

Ken Brinsden, the chief executive of lithium aspirant Pilbara Minerals and former managing director of Atlas Iron, said the project was worthy of NAIF consideration.

“NAIF should be thinking about Northern Australia as an amazing solar resource … long-standing, important economic infrastructure generating power, for all those reasons it is a logical space for NAIF to move into,” he said.

Pilbara Solar is seeking backing for the first stage of its 10-year plan to harness the region’s potential as one of the top handful of sites in the world for solar energy generation. It will start by building site-specific solar farms to power mines before growing to feed supply into what is expected to become an integrated power grid in the Pilbara.

The energy sales to mines and into an integrated grid would provide cash flow in the build up to stage three, which involves developing three gigawatt-scale solar farms and using a subsea high voltage direct current interconnector to supply Indonesia, which has a 25 per cent renewables target.

The capital costs are estimated at $13.9 billion, which includes $5.8 billion for the solar farms.

Subsea cables are used successfully in other parts of the world but this would be the longest and most ambitious project attempted in what Pilbara Solar describes as an engineering stretch and its equivalent of the Snowy River Mountains Scheme.


Mr Hawkins said Pilbara Solar was on track to build its first solar farms on discrete sites in the next two years in what represented a business breakthrough for traditional owners in the Pilbara who had been denied equity stakes in the iron ore industry in return for access to their land.

The traditional owners stand to have billions of dollars held in trusts through royalty payments from big miners, but Mr Hawkins said in many cases their first preference had been equity in the mines.

“The traditional owners wanted equity but the miners were just not interested. This is an opportunity not just for jobs and training but equity,” he said.

YMAC holds a 25 per cent stake in Pilbara Solar in trust for multiple traditional owner groups and wants to maintain or increase that equity as the business grows.

A pre-feasibility study shows the project has the potential to create 2000 permanent jobs and up to 12,000 in the development phase

Pilbara Minerals could become one of the first companies to work with Pilbara Solar as it prepares to commission its Pilgangoora lithium mine next year.

Mr Brinsden said the mine’s power plant was designed to transition from diesel to hybrid solar in what was likely to become commonplace in the industry.

“We are a new mine, a greenfields site and we have come to the conclusion that if you are generating your own power, and especially if it is diesel power generation, then the economics now dictate that you should install hybrid solar solutions,” he said.

“Basically the sun replaces diesel during the day to some extent depending on the load. The cost of the renewables solution, especially with such a strong solar resource like that in the Pilbara, it has almost got to the point where it is a no-brainer.”

Pilbara Solar’s other shareholders include Geoff James, Richard Finlay-Jones and Samantha Mella, who share experience in renewable energy development.

Mr Hawkins said it was inevitable that the Pilbara would have a renewable energy industry built around solar farms.

He said the technology was improving, becoming more efficient and less costly, which all worked in favour of Pilbara Solar and the Aboriginal stakeholders.