One of the prices we have to pay for our ideological divide on renewable energy is that we have to read headlines like this, particularly in the Murdoch media: “Solar and wind power simply don’t work, not here, not anywhere”. It was written by the former chairman of a coal mining company, in case you were wondering.
Solar doesn’t work? New analysis of Australia’s first large-scale solar farms shows that solar actually does work, and rather better than expected. And the findings should make it a lot easier for future projects to get the backing of equity investors and bankers, if not the owners of coal fired generators desperately protecting their turf.
The research has been produced by US-based solar module manufacturer First Solar, whose panels have been used for around three quarters of the large-scale solar projects built in Australia to date, by capacity.
Its study shows that at all the solar farms built by First Solar – in western NSW, north Queensland and Western Australia – the output has been higher than forecast. Collectively, the Australian solar plants using First Solar thin-film PV modules are performing above expectations by an average of 3.2 per cent.
(Spectral advantage, btw, is a measure that First Solar uses to show how much better their panels work in humid conditions than silicon-based rivals).
Now, this might not sound like ground-breaking news – forecast production broken by a few percentage points.
But people in suits are very conservative types, and investment in renewable energy in Australia, both in wind and solar, has been hampered by the fact that bankers won’t finance investments unless they can actually touch, feel and watch the technology, and have proof that it actually works.
This data, Curtis says, is proof that the projects are, indeed, bankable. And that’s more important than it might sound.
Curtis says that even though large-scale solar has been proved in many international locations, local investors still wanted proof that it would work in Australia, even though it does have some of the best solar conditions in the world. Such, perhaps, is the insular nature and/or inherent conservatism of Australia’s banking system.
But Curtis is reassured, not just by the release of the production statistics, but also by the attitude of equity investors and financiers in the local market.
“What’s been most encouraging is that the international banks are bringing their lending frame of reference to the local market, rather than adopting the local ones,” Curtis says. “That will make it hard for local banks to ignore.”
This new level of competition should make it easier for project developers to obtain finance. As RenewEconomy reported on Monday, Curtis believes that the results of the large-scale solar tender by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency in the next few weeks will be a “watershed” moment for the utility-scale sector in Australia.
That’s not just because the projects selected to share the $100 million in ARENA grant funding will get the go-ahead, but because it will also be a trigger for other projects to move forward.
And Curtis expects that many of the solar projects to be built will incorporate single axis tilting, allowing the panels to track the movement of the sun from east to west, and adding to their output in the early morning and late afternoon.
Curtis says the costs of adding single axis tracking mechanisms will be more than compensated by the increase in output.
Based on research at the Gatton solar farm, Curtis estimates that tracking-enabled solar farms will have capacity factors in the high 20 per cent and low 30 per cent, compared to the 25-26 per cent of those without.
“Given the evolution in tracking technologies, any project north of Sydney is doing itself a disservice if it doesn’t have tracking technology,” he says.
Australia’s biggest solar farm with tracking technology is the 57MW Moree solar farm in NSW. First Solar is proposing tracking for the Manildra solar farm in NSW it is planning to build for Infigen Energy, and which has applied for the ARENA grant.
The 100MW solar farm proposed by Sun Brilliance in the West Australian wheat belt will also use single axis tracking technology, making it the biggest solar farm b output if and when it is completed.
Of course, Curtis says the results from the four solar farms his company has built in Australia underscores the advantage of his company’s “thin film” technology over the silicon based panels favoured by its rivals.
“This shows that our panels perform better when it gets hotter, and when it gets humid,” he said. “That’s why Australia is one of the core markets for First Solar.”
Coincidentally, about 2 minutes after I had put down the phone from my chat with Curtis, Dylan McConnell, from the Melbourne Energy Institute, emailed through a production chart from the 102MW Nyngan solar farm, which also used First Solar technology.
McConnell pointed out that, indeed, Nyngan was producing at a capacity factor of 25 to 26 per cent. This, he said, was far higher than official forecasts relied upon for the Australian Power generation Technologies Report, which estimated the average capacity factor of large-scale solar PV at 19-22 per cent.
That, says McConnell, suggests that the forecasts relied upon by the federal government underestimate the output of solar farms by between 15 and 35 per cent.
Little wonder that the government can’t make any sensible decisions about large-scale solar, and why it insists on defunding the agency that has brought about most of the cost reductions in the past year, ARENA.