Two of what energy giant AGL Energy Ltd says are the largest solar projects in Australia are set to proceed following a final investment decision by the company.

In its latest announcement, AGL says it will proceed with the $450 million construction of a 106-megawatt photovoltaic solar plant at Nyngan in northern New South Wales and a 53-megawatt plant at Broken Hill.

The company has contracted power infrastructure contractor First Solar to build and operate both projects.

Set to be partially funded by the federal government’s Australian Renewable Energy Agency and the New South Wales government, the two projects combined will produce around 360,000 megawatt/hours of electricity per year – enough to power more than 50,000 NSW homes.

The projects will also facilitate research supported by the federal government’s Education Investment Fund, which will involve AGL and First Solar collaborating with the University of Queensland and the University of New South Wales in terms of ongoing research into the future development of solar energy in Australia.

AGL Managing Director Michael Fraser says the approval of the projects underscores how far solar energy has come in Australia.

“Solar PV in Australia has come a long way from being a small-scale industry in a relatively short time frame,” he says. “The Nyngan and Broken Hill solar plants will be the nation’s largest solar projects with the Nyngan plant also being the largest in the Southern Hemisphere.”

The latest developments have been welcomed by industry bodies.

Clean Energy Council policy director Russell Marsh notes that by 2020, solar PV and wind energy projects are expected to become cost competitive with coal and gas – a process he says will gather momentum as more projects are built.

Construction on the Nyngan plant is expected to commence in January next year and take around 18 months, with that on the Broken Hill project starting in July 2014 and finishing up around November 2015.

First Solar will operate and maintain both projects for AGL for five years after commercial operation starts.

Both plants will use First Solar’s thin film modules, which the company claims has set world records for efficiency and carbon footprint.

Around 300 jobs will be created at Nyngan during peak construction, while a further 150 workers will be required to build the Broken Hill plant.