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World leading solar + storage R&D facility may help take campus off the grid

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The state of Queensland is leading Australia by a country mile in terms of rooftop solar, and is tipped to do the same in large-scale solar sometime soon. So it’s probably fitting that it should also host the largest solar research project.

Earlier this year, construction was completed on a 3.275MW solar PV array at the Gatton campus of the University of Queensland. At the time of construction, it was the biggest solar array in the state, and it remains so. But it is the mix of technologies and the study of grid integration that will make it unique.

DCIM101GOPRO

DCIM101GOPRO

 

The array includes fixed tilt, single axis tracking and dual axis tracking, and is about to install battery storage – and also has two of the most sophisticated power system laboratories ever built in Australia.

In the next month, a 760kWh battery storage system, using Kokam technology and installed by MPower, will also join the facility.

Professor Paul Meredith, the director of UQ Solar, says the facility is one of the most sophisticated and largest research solar PV pilot plants in the world.

It will be looking to achieve a host of interesting outcomes. One of these is the relative performance and cost-effectiveness of single axis and twin axis trackers.

Both of these offer quick ramp ups in production as the sun rises, and a relatively flat production curve. That compares to the traditional “bell” curve of fixed plate panels, but the UQ research will determine the generation yeilds, and network and overall economic benefits of the technology.

“That is a big technical quetion that everyone wants answered,” Meredith says.

The central control systems are also responsible for integrating the technology into the local 11kv network, opposed to the high voltage connections traditionally used by utility-scale arrays.

UQ will also be able to compare the relative performance of silicon panels (it has 1.2MW on its Brisbane campus) and thin film panels.

It will also be looking at the impact of soiling, passing cloud cover, and will hope to answer questions about how often they should be washed, should the grass be mowed, and what maintenance actually costs.

“This array has the capacity to test control systems and test technology – could we bolt this on to inverter, could we do this, that or the other. Are we getting maximum value from battery? Those are the things that we looking at.”

Meredith describes it as “risky stuff” for a university.

“We don’t normally get into the power business. But it is our responsibility as a univerisity to take the first step, to be an early adopter. Would a mainstream business be able to do this – the answer is probably no.”

Meredith says other universities, both in Australian and overseas, are looking with envy at its total 5MW solar array, and the savings it is getting from the technology.

But it may go further. The 5MW capacity, and the biomass and biogas opportunities from the Gatton campus, which focuses on agriculture and has large piggeries and vast amounts of cellulosic waste, offer some interesting alternatives.

One of those might be to take the Gatton campus off grid, or two create a micro-grid centred around the solar and bio-resources and battery storage. Or just to stake a claim as a net 100% renewable energy campus.

The project is being led by UQ’s Global Change Institute and US-solar manufacturer and developer First Solar, with UNSW also taking a prominent role.

It is being funded by a $40.7 million grant from the Edecation Infractructure Fund, a leftover of the now defunct Solar Flagships program. UQ and First Solar are contributing several million further in investment and in kind.

This is part of a series of articles on Queensland sponsored by Norton Rose Fulbright. For the others in the series, please click here and also visit Norton Rose Fulbright’s COP21 coverage.  

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