"Performance issues" hobble output at ground-breaking solar farm | RenewEconomy

“Performance issues” hobble output at ground-breaking solar farm

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The output at one of Australia’s landmark solar projects, and one of the biggest solar farms in Queensland, has been hobbled by “performance issues.”

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Sun Metals solar farm in happier times.
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The Queensland-based zinc refiner Sun Metals has cited unspecified “performance issues” for a significant reduction in output at what was a ground-breaking solar farm near Townsville.

The 125MW Sun Metals solar farm was a landmark development when it came into service in 2017 because it was the first time a major energy consumer in Australia (the Sun Metals inc refinery is one of the biggest consumers in the state) had invested in a large scale solar farm in Australia to help defray its costs.

The Sun Metals solar farm was designed to supply up to 30 per cent of the Townsville-based zinc refinery’s daytime energy needs, and help stabilise costs and underwrite a $300 million expansion of the facility. All its output is consumed on-site.

At the same time that Sun Metals was planning its solar farm, it was also playing a key role in pushing for a rule change, that led to the forthcoming (but much delayed) switch to 5-minute settlement periods in the wholesale market, to reduce rorting of prices and to provide a better incentive for smarter technologies like battery storage and demand response.

But over the last few years, the output of the Sun Metals solar farm has been gradually reduced, from average a peak of well over 100MW in 2018, to a reduction down to around 95MW in early 2019, to 50MW in the middle of 2019, back up to 80MW, and now down to below 60MW in early 2020. It is now operating at less than half of its specified capacity.

The situation was brought to RenewEconomy’s attention in a recent market notice that announced a variation to constraint equations in north Queensland, where the lack of system strength in the local grid has led the Australian Energy Market Operator to advise that the Sun Metals solar farm, the Haughton solar farm and the Mt Emerald wind farm could be curtailed down to zero in certain circumstances.

Some form of constraint has been imposed since at least last May, it turns out (see graph above), but the variation announced earlier this month cited “the current physical limitation on generation from Sun Metals Solar Farm.”

Asked about this, a spokesman for Sun Metals said in an emailed statement: “Since opening, there have been number of constraints on SMC and other providers in the network.  We are working with AEMO and Powerlink to find solutions to these constraints.

“At the present time, the majority of the reduced volume is due to performance issues with equipment and not related to system strength.”

The spokesperson declined to provide further details.

Sun Metals is not the only solar project to have problems with “performance” or “technical” issues. The Italian energy giant Enel Green Power cited unspecified “technical issues” for the delays in bringing the second part of what should be Australia’s biggest solar farm – Bungala near Port Augusta in South Australia – to full production.

The second 110MW stage has been stuck at a 20MW “hold point” for more than a year, well after its scheduled full commissioning in 2018.

Other solar farms have also suffered delays in connecting to the grid, or failed to obtain their registration for generator performance standard. it is not clear to what extent these are “technical” or “performance” issues to do with equipment, or problems with the quality of installations.

RenewEconomy comment: It’s not surprising that many solar farm owners and developers, many of them private, cite “commercial” issues for their reluctance to detail problems with their projects. But in the transparency, and the reputation of the solar industry, project owners should be more forthcoming about the issues they are facing.

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