Sun Cable to power on despite virus uncertainty




The whirlwind of global financial uncertainty triggered by coronavirus will not delay the ambitious multibillion-dollar Sun Cable project to supply electricity to Darwin and Singapore according to Atlassian billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes (pictured).


He and billionaire miner Andrew Forrest were among investors who poured tens of millions of dollars into the project last November. 


Addressing the Australian Financial Review Business Summit on Tuesday this week Mr Cannon-Brookes said: “We’ve just raised a whole bunch of money and now we need to buy ships and scan the seafloor and work out long-term contracts for cable, and buy a few million solar panels.”


Sun Cable’s $22 billion plan is to build the world’s largest solar farm with a 10-gigawatt capacity covering 15,000 hectares near Tennant Creek and a 22GW-hour storage plant. 


A number of risks remain unaddressed as reported in the Alice Springs News in November 2019 in an exclusive interview with former diplomat, major energy project and China business expert Dr John Saunders, also a former deputy managing director of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s inward investment arm AusTrade.


Dr Saunders foresees logistical challenges for proposed 4500 km cable to Singapore, which will need to crosses deep and difficult undersea terrain.


He is also concerned that private customer data may be insecure as the high-tension electricity cable will have parallel telemetry data communications capable of sending and receiving performance and customer data, posing national security risks.


Mr Cannon-Brookes thinks these hurdles can be overcome.


“Do the pieces of the project all stack up? Yes. It is at a ridiculously global scale, that’s something that should excite us,” he said.


Chief Minister Michael Gunner was also spruiking the Sun Cable project during his visit to Alice Springs this week.


“Sun Cable may be spending $20 billion on the world’s largest solar farm, 22 million solar panels, near Tennant Creek, sending electricity to Darwin and Singapore through a wire.”


“Sun Cables’ heads, billionaires Michael Cannon-Brookes, co-founder of the software company Atlassian, and miner Twiggy Forrest, of Fortescue Metals, are proposing nine more such farms.” Mr Gunner said.


“Some may be near Alice Springs,” he added.


This sounds promising for the Centre, but vague.


Mr Cannon-Brookes also said if Australia can unlock its renewable resources and export it to the two to three billion people in Asia it would be a massive economic opportunity for the entire country.



  1. My observations below were first made in response to an article about the Sun Cable project published on The Conversation on February 26. Here’s a little bit of history.
    1. In June 1992 I wrote to NT Chief Minister Marshall Perron inquiring about the feasibility of linking the Top End’s power system with Timor.
    This was when the electricity grids of the southeast states were being connected as a micro-economic reform measure.
    The Northern Territory economy was badly impacted by the recession of the early 1990s, and I wondered if a similar micro-economic reform measure could be achieved by joining the Top End’s small power grid with our nearest international neighbour.
    My idea was examined by the NT Power and Water Authority but was found impractical for several technical reasons – the amount of power to be transmitted was too small (about 10 megawatts), the capital cost alone would range from $210m to 250m, transmission losses could reach 20% of the power transmitted, and that Indonesia (under whose control East Timor was then) was a net exporter of oil and could supply energy requirements at a much cheaper cost.
    2. In the NT election campaign of June 2005, the major policy plank of the Country Liberal Party was a project to link the Top End with a DC cable via Mt Isa to the National Electricity Grid of the eastern Australian states.
    Touted as “the biggest infrastructure project since the CLP built the Alice Springs-Darwin rail link” (completed under Labor the previous year), the privately financed scheme would feature a “proposed power line, one of the world’s longest” comprised of “masts with a single pole, a cross arm and two bundles of up to four cables as thick as your fist” that “would have a life of up to 50 years” (Alice Springs News, June 8, 2005).
    The capital investment of the project was $1 billion. Although development of offshore gas fields in the Timor Sea was well underway, the CLP claimed that “every molecule of it … is spoken for and will be exported to Japan” (Ibid).
    This was denied by the NT Labor Government, which shortly afterwards won a crushing election victory, taking 19 out of the 25 seat NT Legislative Assembly. The overland power cable project vanished out of contention.
    3. In June 2013 (something about this month of the year!) the Environment Centre NT hosted a workshop on the concept of providing “green energy” from the NT to southeast Asia: “The Territory’s power grid could one day be connected to Asia through undersea cables that transfer renewable energy to East Timor and Indonesia. A workshop will be held in Darwin … so experts can discuss the ambitious project”.
    The Environment Centre NT’s director “said it was likely that Australia’s power grid would one day be connected to Asia. He said he hoped it would be used to distribute renewable energies including solar, geothermal or wind power and reduce our focus on resources such as gas” (NT News, June 25, 2013).
    Solar power transmitted from the Northern Territory to southeast Asia? As the old saying goes, “there ain’t nothing new under the sun”.
    Further to this (and quite apart from the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic), it could be that new Australian technology may prove to render the Sun Cable project unviable.
    I’m referring to Catalytic Hydrothermal Reactors that convert waste plastics, using water as a “change agent”, into synthetic oil, able again to be used for fuel and chemicals.
    There are few (if any) regions in the world groaning louder under the weight of discarded waste plastics than southeast Asia; and indeed it looks like Timor-Leste will be the first country in the world to take up this new technology.
    I suspect the Sun Cable project will go the same way as my suggestion of an undersea power cable to Timor that I made almost three decades ago.

  2. Kirkland Lakes Northern Territory gold projects Cosmo and Union Reefs shut down, with 250 sacked workers. Kirkland is sighting tardiness on the part of the NT Government in granting approvals over concerns for a colony of Ghost Bats.
    15,000 hectares covered by 22 million shiny solar panels and a scar from Tennant to the top is bound to disturb more than a few bats. Yet Mr Gunner is electrified [pun intended] by mere talk about this project.
    Not much help for mining but fast track major project status for this feel good pie in the sky.


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