SolarQ plans 350MW solar farm with storage in south-east Queensland

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A newly-formed solar development company is seeking approval from Queensland’s Gympie regional council for what it says will be Australia’s biggest solar farm, in yet another sign of the snowballing interest in large scale solar PV – and in storage.

The proposal for the Lower Wonga solar farm from SolarQ – comprising a couple of executives who have spent most of their time in the coal and gas industry – was first flagged last year, but has got more coverage in the 24 hours after it was revealed they had submitted a council application.

The project sounds hugely ambitious – 350MW in the first stage, a potential total of 800MW over several stages, and a significant amount of battery storage (up to 4,000MWh). The company is saying that at full capacity it is enough to supply 15 per cent of the electricity needs of the south-east corner of Queensland.


Whether it goes ahead remains to be seen. A bunch of other developers have touted equally big projects, only for them to be rolled out in bite sized chunks, or not at all.

Still, there are some 2,000MW of solar projects in Queensland at advanced stages of development and construction, there is more than 1,000MW in the pipeline in South Australia, including 220MW under construction, and Transgrid has reported 6,000MW of solar proposals in NSW alone.

And many of these proposals, it seems, are coming from people once ensconced in the coal industry, like Reach Solar’s Tony Concannon, who is the former head of the recently closed Hazelwood brown coal generator.

Like Concannon, SolarQ’s Scott Armstrong is saying that solar is already easily beating gas-fired generation, and so too will the combination with battery storage.

“If you asked me three months ago about battery storage, I would have said it was three-to-five years away,” Armstrong told RenewEconomy. “But the prices are falling so significantly and so quickly, that it now one year away.”

So much so, that Armstrong is targeting battery storage by the third quarter of 2018, with a well known “tier 1” battery storage provider.

Armstrong’s vision is to create a solar-storage “peaking plant”, that will take advantage of the huge “flex” in demand profiles in the local region.

This is a classic case of a fossil fuel industry veteran – Armstrong spent years maintaining coal plants and was a trader for Braemer gas generator and the Wivenhoe pumped hydro – seeing new solutions to old problems. “I’m calling it a solid-state peaking plant,” he says. Hence his need for a large amount of storage.

“In my old job I’d build a gas peaking plant,” Armstrong says. “You don’t want to have a baseload power plant in this environment. What you need is flex assets, because it has a large flexing customer base.”

And solar easily beats gas – a peaking plant, he says, has just fuel costs of a minimum $110/MWh “before you get out of bed” and “if you can find the gas”. Building more solar means freeing up more gas for the markets elsewhere. Even Santos agree on that one, hence their interest in supporting Ross Garnaut’s solar and storage plans in South Australia.

SolarQ is saying that the Lower Wonga project should begin construction by the end of the year. Apart from the fact that it has yet to get council approval – although this should be no great problem judging by the comments of the local mayor – it has yet to lock in investors and finance.

Armstrong says that will come after council approvals and other approvals are locked in. But he says there is a big advantage in being located within 2 hours of Brisbane and on a major highway – both in logistics, and in market (there is less transmission losses than from a remote location).

“We have already got pricing for up to 350MW that are significantly below the numbers you see in the market today,” Armstrong says.

“There are significant economies of scale. We believe the market will come and gobble up the project. The energy will be consumers within 100kms of the project development. It is not a fringe development. We will better anything on the market from pricing point of view. It’s really quite exciting.”


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  • Andrew Thaler

    like the article alludes to: I’ll believe it when I can see it and touch it. Until then, its just bullshit like all the other bullshit ‘plans’ out there.

    BTW: who wants to invest in my small-scale 4MW Pumped-Hydro development… its not bullshit. Promise 🙂

  • Ray Miller

    Am unable to find detail if the PVs will be single axis tracking? I’m making the assumption that this is the only kind to build these days especially trying to make as much money as possible in the late afternoon into the daily peak load when the fixed domestic installations have tapered off.

    • Tom

      If it’s got batteries, then it probably doesn’t need the tracking.

      • Kevfromspace

        With single-axis tracking your investment does not have a lifecycle like that of batteries, you boost the capacity factor of the solar farm, you increase energy generation (more LGCs, more money), you can take advantage of evening-time peak periods and you can have more charge for your batteries. They go hand in hand.

        • Tom

          All true, but it depends on the economics.

          If panels, frames, and land are dirt cheap, then the machinery for the axis tracking systems (and its maintenance) might be the most expensive part of the construct, and a fixed array (even though you’d need 40% more panels) and batteries may be a cheaper option.

          Mind you, here is Tassie where some summer pumped hydro would be relatively cheap and easy to install (as the dams and transmission infrastructure already exist), single or even dual axis tracking would have massive advantages due to its capacity factor, if it could be built economically.

          • Kevfromspace

            Agreed, however 40% more panels means 40% more spent on land tenure as well as the panels/frames themselves.

            Personally I don’t think the economics stack up for fixed-tilt large scale solar in Aus anymore, with storage or without. Perhaps somebody with insider knowledge could weigh in?

          • Tom

            Axis trackers take up more land per MW than fixed-tilt, and probably more per MWh as well.

            However, let’s say 1 hectare has 0.5MW of installed capacity at a capacity factor of 20%, that’s about 800MWh per hectare per year. At a very conservative $50/MWh that’s a “farm gate revenue” of $40,000pa/ha.

            A wheat crop would be lucky to return revenue of $2000/ha – most farms would be very happy with $1000/ha.

            Land acquisition is essentially an insignificant cost.

          • neroden

            For reasons I don’t fully understand, single-axis tracking is usually cheap enough for utility-scale projects, but double-axis tracking is not usually cheap enough. :shrug:

            ….I think they’re usually using horizontal single axis tracking. Because you can rotate an entire set of solar panels together, it’s much cheaper than vertical single axis tracking.

          • Mike Shurtleff

            Right, single axis is lower cost because “you can rotate an entire set of solar panels together”. That’s part of it. Double jointed (double axis) means only much smaller square panel can be supported (vice long rectangle), dual axis controls instead of single axis are going to require more expensive hardware, and probably wind loading is more difficult. You are going to have more control points, more complex rotational joints, and more control motors for dual axis.

            The other part is you simply gain less because of the way the sun changes angle from the earth surface as it travels across the sky. Break that angle in two: North-South and East-West.
            (Let’s just consider at the equator first.)

            The sun angle changes seasonally from -23 degrees from vertical (Winter for Northern latitudes), …to +23 degrees from vertical (Summer in Northern latitudes). This is 90 – 23 = 67 degrees from horizontal toward the South, …up through 90 degrees (direct vertical at the equinox), …to 67 degrees from horizontal toward the North.

            If you orient your panels fixed at vertical for North-South orientation, at the equator, then worst case the sun will be off center by 23 degrees at the Winter Solstice and at the Summer Solstice. This the light intercepted by your PV panel to be less. It will be cosine(23) = 0.92 or 92% of the solar light you’ll get when the panel is perfectly perpendicular (90 degrees) to the light. At 23 degrees from perpendicular you are only losing 8% of sun light exposure. It is not worth the extra-cost to compensate for North-South angle.

            Contrast this to orienting your panel in the East-West direction. The sun travels 180 degrees in angle over a plain tangent to the earth, 90 degrees from perpendicular at sunrise, …to perpendicular at noon, …to 90 degrees from perpendicular at sunset. If you fix your panels for best intercept at noon, facing straight up perpendicular to the earth’s surface, then you won’t get anything at all at sunrise or sunset. At sunrise and sunset the light will be parallel to your panel, not perpendicular at all. At sunrise and sunset the light intercepted by your PV panel will be cosine(90) = 0.0 or 0% of the solar light you’ll get when the panel is perfectly perpendicular (90 degrees) to the light. At 90 degrees from perpendicular you are only losing 100% of sun light exposure.

            If you turn you panel in the East-West direction as the sun passes overhead, then you can intercept (receive) most of the sunlight productively by keeping the panel at 90 degrees (perpendicular) to the sun from sunrise to sunset. BIG difference in the East-West direction.

            You do have to account for shading of a PV Panel by the Panels next to it, at sunrise and sunset. This puts a practical limit to how close to the horizon you can really aim. You end up with less than 180 degrees of sunlight travel that you can really use, but East-West tracking remains a very significant gain. I’m ignoring the fact that mountain, buildings, trees, chronic dust, pollution, or clouds at the horizon can also increase the level of your horizon (to the East or West) and also reduce that 180 degrees of useful sunlight travel.

            Finally, besides loss of sunlight intercepted (cosine loss), there is also reflection to consider. Reflection of sunlight from the surface of a solar PV panel means it will not get into the PV material to be converted to electricity. It will instead be reflected back away from the panel. (Anti-reflective coatings are frequently used on the face of the panel to reduce this.) Reflection of light increases non-linearly as you move from perpendicular intercept of the sunlight (pointed straight at the sun) to parallel (pointed parallel to the sunlight). Non-linearly in this case meaning not much reflection at first, but reflective losses increase very rapidly at some known angle. You can look this up. I think it might be past 30 degrees from perpendicular, most of the light hitting a glass surface will be reflected away.

            BOTTOM LINE:
            Simple trig and path of the sun across the sky.
            North-South active tilt toward the sun is not worth the cost.
            East-West active tilt toward the sun can be well worth the cost. This is particularly true if high levels of Solar PV have been achieved, so that electricity is needed more in the morning and evening, but well supplies by fixed Solar PV around noon.

            Flogged that one. Hope it helps, mike

          • Tom

            Brilliant comment Mike,

            Down here in Tassie (42 degrees South) we’ve got a bit of a problem with single axis tracking in that it would be inefficient to have them laid flat, ie, for maximum efficiency each “row” should be tilted up.

            Having said that though, on the summer solstice the meridian altitude at 42 deg south is 71.5 degrees, hence flat single axis trackers would still be 95% as efficient as dual axis trackers at this instant in time. Even on the equinox when the meridian altitude is 48 degrees they would be 74% as efficient as dual axis trackers.

            Earlier and later than the meridian the sun would not be as high, but it would be further east or west, so the panels inefficiency would be less than otherwise at the sun’s lower height as they would sort of be facing the sun better.

            The big advantage in Tasmania of trackers is capacity factor. Tassie’s competitive advantage is that we’ve already got batteries (the hydro dams), but they are not rechargeable except by rain. However, if we generate more solar than we can use even after shutting all our hydro turbines down, then it is a waste. Fixed axis will generate heaps of power cheaply, but only for a short period of time, after which we are relying on our dams again. If we can generate our maximum solar but string it out for longer, then we get to keep more energy in our dams.

      • neroden

        The tracking increases total production. If the price is right, it’s worth doing tracking, so almost all utility-scale solar farms have single-axis tracking.

        It’s funny that nobody’s developed a solar panel which has good absorption of photons arriving at an angle… they all absorb them best if they arrive “head on”. There was a concentrator idea which was going to deal with that, but I don’t think it’s been done yet.

  • Ray Miller

    The Queensland government needs to unlock access to the massive energy subsidies to remote rural areas to encourage significant solar and storage in many towns. Especially the more western towns they can then export to the east be it even 10-15 minutes longer each afternoon.