Atlassian CEO's bonkers scheme to pipe electricity from Australia to Singapore collapses

4,000km extension cords are hard to build

Analysis A plan backed by Atlassian co-CEO Mike Cannon-Brookes – aimed at providing 15 percent of Singapore's electricity needs using solar energy generated in Australia – has collapsed.

The Australia-Asia PowerLink (AAPL) project envisioned installing 120km2 of solar panels capable of generating 3.2 gigawatts in Australia's Northern Territory, storing the output in a giant battery, using some of it to power the Australian city of Darwin, then piping the remainder 4,000km through an undersea cable to Singapore.

At first blush it sounds bonkers, but its individual components don't seem so far out of the question.

The Northern Territory is enormous and sparsely populated, so installing 120km2 of solar panels is feasible – if challenging.

A giant battery is also doable, and Cannon-Brookes has experience on such a project: he and Elon Musk famously worked together in 2017 to install a 150MW battery in the state of South Australia. The battery has worked well since, helping the state to capitalize on investments in wind turbines.

And of course undersea cables are well known: humanity is pretty good at running them across oceans to carry data.

Why, it's so crazy it just might work.

The project was estimated to cost over AUD$30 billion ($21B) and attracted over $150 million of investment – much of it from Cannon-Brookes' investment vehicle Grok Ventures and Australian mining billionaire Andrew Forrest. The pair poured money into an entity called SunCable that was charged with making the PowerLink happen.

Infrastructure Australia – a government body that assesses the viability and worthiness of infrastructure projects – rated it "investment-ready" as of June 2022.

That assessment was vindicated four months later, in October 2022, when Singaporean energy buyers signed up for as much juice as the AAPL could carry, and then some.

The project attracted lots of attention due to its sheer audacity, the involvement of at least two billionaires (and the possibility Elon Musk's Tesla could build the battery). There was excitement that Australia could become a clean energy exporter, and by doing so deliver on long-held hopes of turning its largely empty north into an economic powerhouse.

But that enthusiasm all but ignored the project's enormous complexity. The solar farm and battery would have been the world's largest, meaning lots of opportunities for cost blowouts and unforeseen challenges.

The long, long, extension cord from Australia to Singapore was predicted to be devilishly complex to build, and worryingly fragile.

That assessment came from Bevan Slattery, an Australian entrepreneur (and maybe this story's fourth billionaire) who has run companies that build and operate submarine data cables.

In a lengthy LinkedIn post, Slattery explained that the route from Australia to Singapore traverses deep water, oil pipelines, numerous telecoms cables, and the most dangerous waters in the world for those cables. In his opinion the cable would also need entirely new ships to build and maintain it.

He also rated the cable "unrecoverable" if broken – and cables break all the time. This one would have a higher than usual chance of breaking because of near-constant tectonic activity on its route.

SunCable last week announced it had entered voluntary administration – a condition akin to bankruptcy.

The company cited "absence of alignment with the objectives of all shareholders" as one reason for entering administration. It added: "Whilst funding proposals were provided, consensus on the future direction and funding structure of the company could not be achieved."

That's widely held to be code for "Forrest and Cannon-Brookes could not agree on how to fund SunCable and make the project happen." Forrest is also known to have invested in hydrogen energy, so perhaps prefers the idea of using solar electricity to power electrolysis and ship the gas to Singapore, avoiding the risks of building a cable.

The statement announcing SunCable's entry to voluntary administration notes that it "currently has a portfolio of a further 11GW of proposed projects, which is equivalent to over three times that of the AAPowerLink."

Cannon-Brookes's canned quote reads: "SunCable has achieved so much since it was founded in 2018. I'm confident it will play a huge role in delivering green energy for the world, right here from Australia. I fully back this ambition and the team, and look forward to supporting the company's next chapter."

But at this point, only he seems to have an interest in writing that chapter. And with Atlassian's share price at less than half its late 2021 peak, his ability to fund further adventures is not as extensive as it once was. ®

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