THE two giant new solar power plants slated for Moree in western NSW and Chinchilla in Queensland will mark the first time solar power in Australia is deployed on a scale large and reliable enough to rival coal as a source of ''baseload'' energy.
Neither plant is close to being the world's biggest, with much more powerful solar power stations in the US and Spain already under construction, but enough power to run more than 100,000 households will be generated without the use of fossil fuels.
The NSW government agreed to chip in $120 million and the federal government $306 million towards the Moree project, which will cost an estimated $923 million to build. Building from scratch means the project, which will generate up to 150 megawatts of electricity, will be much more expensive than coal, even with no fuel costs.
The private consortium building the plant is led by BP Solar, Fotowatio and Pacific Hydro. It is not clear yet whether the state or federal governments can expect a return on their investments.
The state government said the Moree solar farm was expected to contribute around $210 million to the NSW economy, much of it flowing through the Moree district, and would lead to at least 300 new construction jobs.
It said over the 30 years the power station was expected to operate it would displace about 10.8 million tonnes of greenhouse gas that would otherwise have been released by the burning of fossil fuels.
"The project will drive regional investment, create jobs and ensure NSW is well positioned to meet its future energy targets,'' the Energy Minister, Chris Hartcher said. "Moree is an ideal place to host the plant, with good links to the national electricity grid and a climate that will deliver strong outputs from the plant.''
The NSW plant is based on large photovoltaic cells, which are similar in some ways to rooftop solar panels. The Chinchilla plant, which is slightly larger, uses solar thermal energy - concentrating the sun's rays via mirrors on to a central point to generate huge amounts of heat.
Solar thermal energy is seen as more likely to replace baseload coal and gas plants over the longer term.
The Australian Greens leader, Bob Brown, said pressure from his party had brought the federal government to a position where it had to help fund the projects.
The NSW Greens said the state government had settled for the poorer option, when compared with the Queensland plant. ''It's a tribute to the lack of interest and ability of successive NSW governments that this state ended up with lots of rooftop solar panels connected together while Queensland secured the much more exciting and innovative solar thermal power station,'' the Greens MP John Kaye said.