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Innovation: Pre-fab solar farms could slash cost of big solar

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Australian engineers last year installed a prototype solar farm in just 4 minutes. If they can do that for large projects, they could change the economics of large-scale solar.

The 5B team - Jade Fennell, Chris McGrath, Eden Tehan, and Nikita Shtepa.

The 5B team – Jade Fennell, Chris McGrath, Eden Tehan, and Nikita Shtepa.

A group of Australian engineers is busy working in a suburban Sydney workshop on a technology that they think could change the economics of large-scale solar in Australia.

The company – 5B – is working on a pre-fabricated and re-deployable solar farm solution: essentially meaning that the technology can be shipped to a project site ready made, and can then be packed up and moved when no longer needed.

That has big appeal for developers pondering the construction and labour costs of solar projects in regional and remote areas.

And it may be especially appealing to mine-sites and other operators, who may only need solar power for a 5 to 10-year project. Under this plan, the plant can simply be packed up and shipped to the next customer.

Chris McGrath, one of the founders of 5B, says the company is not yet ready to reveal all the details of the new technology. But he is promising a “cheap and fast way to deploy large-scale solar.”

The team – mostly alumni from listed renewable energy company Infigen Energy and the University of NSW – are currently working on a 20kW module that they are looking to deploy in a 60kW array at a site on the outskirts of Sydney.

If that works as planned, McGrath says, the company will have a “cookie-cutter” model that can then be applied in bigger arrays, up to tens of megawatts.

A prototype was installed last year, just to test the speed of deployment. A 6kW array – slightly bigger than the average rooftop installation – was erected and installed in just 4 minutes. It had been pre-fabricated in the work shop.

McGrath says the attraction of these models are reducing installation and construction costs, particularly in remote areas.

The ability to pack multiple arrays into shipping containers means that they could be installed in a mine-site, say for 5 years, and then moved elsewhere.

Solar can significantly reduce the cost of diesel, but the fact that many mines operate for relatively short periods has been a block to solar’s deployment.

“These arrays will be an order of magnitude faster,” he says. “Essentially it is a logistics and deployment exercise.”

McGrath says construction and installation costs are a significant factor in the cost of large scale solar. The Australian Renewable Energy Agency is currently examining 22 projects that is has short-listed for grants under a $200 million program.

McGrath suspects that many of these projects are getting under the cut-off of $135/MWh by taking a hair-cut on margins, as opposed to actual step-changes in the way the projects are proposed to be constructed.

Significant cuts in installation, he says, could reduce the cost of installation to the magical $1/watt, down from around $1.60-$1.80/watt now.

“It’s a very simple technology,” McGrath says, without wanting to go into the details at this stage.  “Simplistically, we describe ourselves as a module logistics company, and what we are targeting is what we consider to be low hanging fruit.

“We want to get the cost of solar and renewable energy to the point it is so cheap it can compete without subsidies.

So their plan is to reduce labour onsite, do the construction in a factory, and that also addresses many of the overheads that people gloss over – including interest expenses during construction and standing construction costs.

“We end up with a simple and low cost system that can be assembled in a factory close to where the project is. We want to get to $1 a watt pretty quickly.”

McGrath says the off-grid market in Australia is estimated at around 5 gigawatts, of which around 4GW is gas, and much of the rest is higher cost diesel, burning more than $1bn of fuel per annum.

The diesel component (and in some situations the gas component), is more expensive than solar, however the uncertain lifespan of many mines has limited the deployment of solar … until now.


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  • Jo

    brilliant idea! This is a missing link.

  • Beat Odermatt

    Yes, a far better idea than importing massively expensive “bird fryers”. In Australia we can do it better and we do not need to buy the most expensive unproven potentially harmful technologies. I noted that a few companies in Australia are developing and selling more affordable batteries. We need power generated close to the place of consumption.

    • danielspencer

      Beat, the issue the ivanpah plant had with birds has been solved. It’s not a thing anymore.

      • Beat Odermatt

        If you believe their report and if it turns out to be true than it will be great news for the birds there. We are talking about a totally different situation near the coast and Australia has international obligations to protect migratory birds. We have to see some research and an EIS in Australia before we go gaga over such unproven technology.

        • Alastair Leith

          honestly Beat, why do you even come here with this garbage? They reduced the solar flux to 4 suns heat down from what was probably in order of hundreds or more in the standby position.

          It was only an issue once with mirrors in the standby position when a flock of birds flew above the tower. They probably don’t have as much need for using standby positions when they enter full service.

          You want to know how many migratory birds the oil industry kills? In the order of millions. They get confused by lights on off-shore oil and gas rigs and fall around into they collapse exhausted into the ocean. Was unknown phenomenon until dissection of shark guts revealed on-shore bird species that had no business in the ocean. I guess all those rig workers never reported how many flocks of migratory birds were getting way laid and on their watch and perishing into the ocean.

          Then add BP and Halliburton’s deepwater horizon spill just for a single data point… and you are in a moral panic about 117 birds in the entire CST industry which caused a complete revision of the operating procedures and elimination of the threat. Elephant stamp for you, Beat.

        • Alastair Leith

          Price point of CST with thermal storage vs “ more affordable batteries”:
          http://reneweconomy.com.au/2016/solarreserve-proposes-110mw-solar-tower-and-storage-plant-for-australia-16693

  • orko138

    great to see young engineers driving efficiencies in the solar biz. I hope to see this tech in an Ikea flat-pack one day

  • phred01

    In Germany Companies rent roof space from house owners. The time is right the same can be done here. Companies might think about renting ares here & there thus making a distributed solar generation

    • Math Geurts

      No need for roofs anymore as big solar will be much cheaper.

      • Alastair Leith

        the meter is still the fulcrum for PV. these guys are targeting off grid but industrial estate rooftops would likely be next if they can reduce costs significantly and offer leased systems with minimal install/uninstall cost overheads.

      • trackdaze

        Cheaper to produce perhaps but not cheaper to buy.

      • Brian Tehan

        The optimal solution includes both rooftop pv and large scale solar as well as wind, of course. The solar thermal plants can provide reliable baseload, especially during the evening. Pv can handle the daytime peaks. Storage is the other part of the equation, whether battery or hydro and pumped hydro.

  • JohnRD

    At a smaller scale a system like this could bypass some of the problems that discourage solar on rental properties.

  • Peter Castaldo

    get it down to tassie before that build more fossil fuel gas plants.

    • Brian Tehan

      The Tasmanians should actually be building more wind farms. After all, they have the best wind resources in Australia plus hydro to back it up. They could put in pumped hydro to store the excess, sell it to Victoria, instead of importing. This could be a profitable export.

  • Vox

    The idea sounds great. The question is: does the special-designed frames and anchors make the system more expensive than the usual off-the-warehouse system? If so, does it make up for the reduced construction costs and time?

    As for the dissassembly, have they had any issues with damaged panels/components that they later need to repair before re-deployment?

  • trackdaze

    If only it could be installed on residential in 4minutes.

    Plug and play

  • Rob G

    Image how useful this kind of deployment could be in disaster hit areas… QLD floods come to mind…

    • Calamity_Jean

      Or areas cut off by bush fires.

  • Lightfoot

    Great to see Australian Engineers working on this. A large portion of the costs for large solar farms is the labour intensive on-site construction. However, considering just the *empty* solar panel pallets from Moree Solar farm would have built a stack over 1.1KM high (11,000 pallets at 100mm) this is a wait and see moment of how well this frame system is going to scale up above the small-medium solar farms.