Melbourne’s entire tram network could be powered by solar if the state government gave a bold renewable energy proposal the green light.
While the pitch may conjure up images of trams with rooftop panels on them like the family home, the power would instead be generated at two new solar farms the project proponents plan to build near Swan Hill and Mildura.
The company behind the bid, the Australian Solar Group, have held quiet talks over four years with different arms of the government to try get the project off the ground, but has so far not got final backing.
The two solar farms would generate 80 gigawatt-hours of electricity a year, about the same amount used by Melbourne’s tram network, which is the world’s largest.
Under the proposal the government would back the project by signing Public Transport Victoria (PTV) up to a power purchase agreement with the solar farms, creating a reliable revenue source alongside the renewable energy target.
The proponents say the project has been designed to ensure the cost of tram tickets would not rise, nor would it add to PTV’s power bill. It would cut 100,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions a year from running trams and give the city an obvious global selling point (see the mock-up tram design above), according to the pitch.
WHO BACKS IT?
The Australia Solar Group was founded by businessmen Adrian Critchlow and Dave Holland. Mr Crtichlow previously helped start companies Booking.com and AlertMe,before successful sales of both. Mr Holland was formerly the head of Solar Systems, a company that was building a large solar project in Mildura before financial collapse in 2009.
Mr Holland said Australia Solar had tried to get almost all elements of the tram project ready to go before it sought final financial backing.
“This project is virtually ready to go. We can’t see any barriers that would stop it from here,” he said.
The tram project has been supported behind the scenes by members of the Melbourne City Council, including Lord Mayor Robert Doyle. Councillor Arron Wood said it ticked many boxes, from contributing significantly towards the city’s renewable energy target to creating employment and training opportunities in rural Victoria.
“Ultimately, whether this project proceeds rests firmly with the Victorian Government. I just hope they take the action necessary to get it done,” Cr Wood said.
A spokeswoman for the Andrews government said: “We are interested in how the project progresses and will continue discussions with the group.”
IS THE PROJECT VIABLE?
Australian Solar says the solar farms would span across 80 hectares and use 130,000 panels to track the sun throughout the day. It has planning and grid connection approvals for its Swan Hill site, with permit processes underway for the second site at Red Cliffs.
The solar power generated would be fed into the electricity grid, offsetting the power PTV currently demands from elsewhere to run the trams.
The company says approximately $3 million has been spent on the project to date, with $70 million needed to build the solar farms.
To underpin this the company says it needs the power purchase agreement with PTV, who ultimately pays Yarra Trams’ electricity bills.
It is seeking a 20-year power agreement, which is longer than Yarra Trams’ current short-term deals. The company says it has negotiated pricing with PTV, but there is no final agreement.
In October former Transport Minister Terry Mulder sent a letter to the city council saying PTV was interested in the project which fitted well with its environmental goals. But that had to be “measured against the availability of brown coal and natural gas that for many years have given Victoria a relatively cheap source of energy,” he wrote.
He added there were also significant commercial risk analysis requirements associated with such a project, requiring longer timelines.
HOW CLEAN IS OUR TRANSPORT?
Transport is responsible for 17 per cent of Australia’s total emissions, but this only accounts for vehicles with combustion engines such as the average family car.
Electrified transport, such as trains and trams, is more efficient but still helps generate emissions by demanding power from Australia’s coal-dominated electricity-grid.
Last year The Age reported that Metro Trains was Victoria’s second largest emitter through energy use.
The City of Melbourne has reported trams account for 10 per cent of city transport emissions with energy use factored in.