Solar on the right track?

A plan to power Melbourne’s tram network by solar has been met with scepticism by a local brown coal researcher.

The State Government last week outlined plans for 75 megawatts of new large scale solar wind farms in north-west Victoria, with about half of that production to be linked to powering Melbourne’s 410-tram fleet.

Spruiked to deliver $150 million in capital investment and 3000 new jobs, the government expects the solar powered network to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80,000 tonnes annually and keep Victoria on track “to meet its target of net-zero emissions by 2050”.

But a Morwell doctor with 25 years’ experience in brown coal research and development, Ron Camier has quashed the idea, branding the proposal as “comedic”.

“(Solar and trams) are just two totally separate things they’ve linked together to try and get some sort of publicity benefit from,” Dr Camier said.

“Unless they put solar panels all over the trams… it’s just not possible.”

A spokesman for Energy, Environment and Climate Change Minister Lily D’Ambrosio said the solar power arrangement was “notional” but the growth in renewable energy would be sufficient to cover the tram network’s needs.

The government would also buy “renewable energy certificates” from the plants, to help provide financial certainty, he said.

Renewable power producers can sell both electricity and renewable energy certificates, giving them an additional potential revenue stream.

The government would not put a dollar figure on the project, or comment on whether the solar project would be more costly than using existing baseload power from brown coal power stations.

Dr Camier believes it would be.

By his estimates, each tram – which runs off 600v DC – would require about 120 hectares of solar power to operate.

This was a costly operation, he said, considering the cost of generating solar was about three times that of brown coal baseload.

“If you were to include battery storage you could nearly double that again,” Dr Camier said.

“So one would expect… they would need to charge tram operators between three and five times the electricity price, which would increase fares.”

The government’s spokesman said the project’s costs would be funded through the state budget and would not be passed on to public transport customers’ fares.

The government was also confident, he said, that a 36mW solar plant would produce enough power to match the energy use of Melbourne’s trams.

The Greens energy spokeswoman Ellen Sandell welcomed the plans for solar-powered trams as it matched a Greens policy announced in 2015.

Opposition spokesman for energy David Southwick described the proposal as a “media stunt” which provided no answers to the state’s energy security challenges weeks out from the Hazelwood power station and mine’s closure.

Dr Camier shared similar sentiments, saying there was “no connection” between running trams and solar power.

“It’s all just for publicity value,” he said.