Sun Cable in voluntary administration: why is the energy project in trouble?

Last week, we talked about the Sun Cable as one of five energy projects to watch for in 2023 on The Science Briefing. A day later, the company announced it was going into voluntary administration.

So, what exactly is the Sun Cable – and why is it in trouble?

What is the Sun Cable?

The Sun Cable is a proposed project to connect renewable energy in Northern Australia with Southeast Asia.

Specifically, the Sun Cable Company aims to connect solar and battery power in the Northern Territory with Singapore.

The plan features the self-styled “world’s largest solar farm” 500km south of Katherine and 800km south of Darwin, a solar array factory and big batteries in Darwin, and – most ambitiously – a 4,200km-long undersea cable delivering electricity directly to Singapore.

Founded in 2018, the company had backing from two Australian billionaires: Mike Cannon-Brookes, through his company Grok Ventures, and Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest, through his company Squadron Industries.

The project is estimated to cost upwards of $30 billion total, and the first phase is currently under environmental impact review by the Northern Territory government.

Assuming it’s approved, the first phase of the project was due to begin construction in 2024.

Read more in this 2021 article: Sun Cable: a clean energy game changer for the Asia Pacific?

Why is it so expensive?

Aside from the sheer scale of the solar and battery project, the proposed way of getting electricity to Singapore is – if not novel – highly ambitious.

The initial proposal for the project relied on a high-voltage direct current (HVDC) cable, running undersea through Indonesia.

The current world’s longest submarine HVDC cable is 720 km long, less than a fifth of the 4,200 km length the Sun Cable would require. There are some longer land-based HVDC cables in China, such as the 3,000 km Changji-Guquan link, but 4,200 is still a big distance to cover.

Why has it gone into voluntary administration?

The company has cited “the absence of alignment with the objectives of all shareholders” as the reason for appointing voluntary administrators.

The subtext? Forrest and Cannon-Brookes can’t agree on how the project should move ahead. While the ‘sun’ part of Sun Cable is mostly agreed upon, with both investors seeing the merits of the solar and battery parts of the project, there are wildly differing views on the ‘cable’ part.

Forrest’s Squadron Industries is interested in using the power to make green hydrogen fuel and green ammonia – which can then be shipped overseas, as with other projects Forrest is involved with, such as in Queensland and Western Australia.

Cannon-Brookes, meanwhile, has continued to focus on the Asia-Australia Power Link – the undersea cable.

While the project is not yet over, with founder and CEO David Griffin saying it “remains well placed for completion”, it will need another source of investment to be properly realised.

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