Solar's new sweet spot: Low cost, compact PV plants at $1/watt | RenewEconomy

Solar’s new sweet spot: Low cost, compact PV plants at $1/watt

New solar plant in Queensland will be built at less than half the cost modelled in the Finkel Review, and give a payback to investors in less than 5 years. Small is beautiful for large scale solar.


panels solar copy

There’s been a lot of attention paid to the big boom in large scale solar in Australia over the past nine months, with more than 2.4GW under construction across the country, and another 8GW in the pipeline, by RenewEconomy’s estimates.

The focus has been on the big end of this construction boom, but something interesting is happening at the smaller end of the market – the emergence of quick-to-build, compact MW scale solar plants that are redefining the technology’s economics.

The majority of large scale solar plants are slowed down by connection issues and getting a power purchase agreement and finance. But there has been no such inhibition for YD Projects, which this week completed the first of a number of solar projects on the NSW/Queensland border.

The 4.77MW Chillamurra solar plant at Goondiwindi was built in just four months, and the next, a 10.9MW solar plant at Barcaldine in Queensland, will likely take less time.

Even more importantly, the Barcaldine project will set a new benchmark for capital costs in Australia, at just a few cents over $1/watt. This compares to the $1.80/watt achieved by ARENA in its funding round last year, and less than half the $2.20/watt estimated by Jacobs, the modellers for the Finkel Review.

And the merchant model will deliver payback to its equity investors in less than five years, meaning it matters a lot less what happens to market prices after that.

YD Projects, is the brainchild of electrical engineer, and former oil industry veteran Rob Mailler and two colleagues John Hill and Glenn Clark.

They have been looking at large scale solar for years, since before entering the ground mounted commercial solar market in 2009, with YellowDot bidding – and being shortlisted, ultimately unsuccessfully – in the ACT large solar round.

“We knew then that there would be a time in the future when the cost of deploying this technology would fall and energy prices would rise and the curves would cross and large sites would become feasible without government support” Mailler tells RenewEconomy.

That’s certainly the case now. The output from the plant will be sold at market prices, but with an LCOE of around 7.7c/kWh (defying expectations that smaller plants are more expensive due to lack of scale) Mailler expects a relatively short payback given the current prices for wholesale electricity, and for renewable energy certificates.

“The landscape (for wholesale and LGC prices) will be different in five years’ time, but our payback time is pretty quick,” he says.

“Over the next two to three years there is enough certainty to proceed. If you can return all your capital, and you have low running costs, and no fuel costs, what happens after that is less critical.”

That puts a different complexion on how the equity investors are looking at the deal. They are concerned about the IRR (internal rate of return) and that is likely to vary a lot, but it is the payback period that is consistent and most important.

solar panels 2.

One of the features of these new solar plants being built by YD Projects is a newly released frame technology known as PEG, delivered by German solar firm Belectric.

It is lightweight, easy to assemble, and because there is no need for big machinery, there is a gap of just 2cm between the rows of modules, compared to several metres in most arrays. The system achieves 1.4MWp per hectare.

That means three times as much solar can be installed compared to competing arrays, and that makes it interesting for large energy users, particularly manufacturers, who are looking to install solar “behind the meter” to manage their soaring electricity bills, and may not have that much spare land.

This adds to the growing realisation that much of Australia’s future energy development will be localised, or distributed, as per the CSIRO and ENA forecasts, and predictions by new AEMO boss Audrey Zibelman.

Mailler says the company had taken the technology to ARENA, but failed to get funding.

“There is good story here – we applied for government assistance, didn’t get it, but we persevered with it and did it anyway without support.” Ironically, the Chillamurra plant has become operational well before any of the ARENA supported projects from the 2016 round.

“Historically, the Australian government has gifted substantial grant funding to foreign solar project developers,” Mailler says.

“Hopefully, we are helping to demonstrate that Australia has the necessary people and the talent at home to do these projects so that subsidies for foreign firms can now come to an end, thereby levelling the playing field,” Mailler said.

YD Projects has developed local people and local capacity, providing a boost to the local economy and spawning new businesses.

Nir Dekel, the Australian point man for Belectric, says the idea for the sub-structure of the framing is to keep it low, dense and lightweight. “The only gaps are for walking past for maintenance.” Frames for a 1MW array can fit in one 40 foot container, and no heavy equipment is needed. Their competitors need 3-4 containers.

YD Projects’ Chief Operating Officer, Glenn Clark, says he thinks there will “be a lot more of these plants”, but it is clear that there is something similar to a gold rush to get land, and connection points. When its plant at Barcaldine is built, any further solar in the area will require an upgrade of the local grid.

“It is an active market there at the moment.”

The Chillamurra solar farm used Jinko solar panels, with Maxim DC optimisers, and SMA inverters. It was built on property owned by Mailler’s retired parents. Meralli Projects carried out the construction.


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  1. Craig Allen 3 years ago

    It would be great if they could do it with Tindo panels to get it even more local.

    • Brunel 3 years ago

      Yes. Should ban government buildings from having imported solar panels on the roof.

      The CrossRail in England is required to be built using British steel.

    • George Darroch 3 years ago

      Competition is good for the industry. If they have the best product for the job at a good price, they’ll win out.

      • Craig Allen 3 years ago

        Or Tindo could just copy their methodology and do it themselves.

  2. Chris Schneider 3 years ago

    This is great! better utilisation be square meter and smaller scale means they can be put almost anywhere! If they could get the paired cost of a battery with them they might kill off any other options!

  3. George Darroch 3 years ago

    “there is a gap of just 2cm between the rows of modules, compared to several metres in most arrays.”

    How are the panels maintained and cleaned?

    • Roger Brown 3 years ago

      “The only gaps are for walking past for maintenance.” 4th last paragraph .

      • Giles 3 years ago

        Just to add more detail:
        “We do it in blocks. So at Chillamurra, one block is 900 modules configured as 36 modules east west and 25 modules north south. It’s all tightly packed. Then we have a 1.5m walking gap in the north south direction before the next block.
        “We have two lines of blocks side by side in the north south direction with a 1.2m gap between them for the DC trunk cables.
        “One section is 5 blocks N/S and 2 blocks E/W
        “Then we have a 4.5m road for driving vehicles up the centre and then another section to the west.”

        • Ian 3 years ago

          Ah, don’t spoil the fun.

        • Tom 3 years ago

          It’s interesting that PV panels are becoming so cheap that solar farms would rather have them facing in different directions to smooth the daily power curve despite sacrificing some total energy.

          Could this be the end of axis tracking?

          • neroden 3 years ago

            Nah. Tracking is a winner if you can do it cheaply enough because it’s always facing in the optimal direction.

    • Ren Stimpy 3 years ago

      A good job for drones. There’s a startup idea for somebody.

      • john 3 years ago

        That has already been done i do remember reading about a startup that has a drone to just such a job.

        • Ren Stimpy 3 years ago

          This team will get em cleaned in no time – and they work at night so there’s no disruption to generation

    • Ian 3 years ago

      Rain, probably, just like most homes. Their ROI is probably just 5 years, they can get some new panels when the old get dirty or just add a few more to compensate for the grime.

    • Daniel Ball 3 years ago

      Doesn’t appear to be an servicing gap between each second row. They probably use optimisers to know exactly which panel in the row has a problem, however without access how do you get to it?

    • Ken Fabian 3 years ago

      It does look like any panel replacements or repairs to wiring will require crawling underneath – uncomfortable but not impossible, and probably less difficult and less dangerous than doing maintenance on rooftop arrays. If it’s constructed well, that should be a rare occurrence. Cleaning? It may require some innovation – sprayers or blowers on long booms? Places like Goondiwindi can get dry and dusty in drought times so cleaning might be a necessity. Are solar panels anti-static?

      Without the north facing orientation the panels will produce less but being cheaper and quicker to build should more than compensate.

      • Rob 3 years ago

        Yes, much easier and less dangerous than servicing rooftop.

  4. Tim Buckley 3 years ago

    Massive solar capex cost deflation – happening in India, happening here. So why have our electricity prices doubled? Why has Australia’s gas price trebled? And what is Josh & Mal’s solution – “clean coal”?! But lets wait for some fossil fool to brainlessly parrot the need for baseload power. May Malcolm will say it again, pretending if he says it often enough people might think he believes what he is saying.

    • rawlsio 3 years ago

      If it’s anything like California, it’s not about the cost of generation, but the costs that need to be covered to keep the utility whole. Monthly cost to generate my electricity form renewable sources is about $40. Monthly amount the utility charges to deliver that electricity to my meter over their grid is $140.

  5. howardpatr 3 years ago

    Great to see – I am sure Messrs Mailler, Hill and Clark have made provision for future ESS, using the likes of EOS, ViZn, Alevo, Ecoult, etc.

    Perhaps Arena might demonstrate some better initiative in supporting practical R&D with these newer energy storage technologies?

  6. Peter F 3 years ago

    These guys are earning $135,000 per year per hectare and its drought proof with less than 10% of revenue in operating cost and annual variation in revenue no more than 15-20%. Farming revenue per hectare around Barcaldine is anywhere between $250 for grazing and $6,000 for cotton, subject to drought and farmgate prices. Operating costs are 30-65% of revenue and revenue can vary by =/- 80% from average.
    Seems like sun farming would be a valuable cash crop

    • TheTransition 3 years ago

      That’s a really good point. However the $135,000 per hectare is offset by the capital cost of the purchase particularly if you have to roll-in a grid upgrade and storage to capture the value from the evening and morning demand and to avoid competition from all the other solar producers. Planting crops has a much lower capital cost. What we really need is profitable solar without LCA’s.

      • Ian 3 years ago

        1.4MW per hectare = $1.4 million /hectare to construct. Cost of finance ?5% = $70 000/year. Average energy production say 5KWH/KW nameplate capacity. Yearly 1400 x 5 x 365 =2.555GWH They would get maybe 10c/KWH plus LGC $60/MWH revenue: $408 000/hectare.

        Please check my figures and tell me my calcs are an order of magnitude too high. This can’t be right.

        • Giles 3 years ago

          There’s your pay-back in less than four years!

  7. Gnällgubben 3 years ago

    If there’s only a 2 cm gap between rows won’t they suffer from self-shadowing?

    • Rob 3 years ago

      Back to back orientation and tilt set to ensure any self shadowing negligible.

  8. Steyn Enslin 3 years ago

    Thermodynamic cycles just improved 20 fold. The cost of solar energy as described in this article is still ridiculously high but this will change very shortly. New technology now able to produce power from any latent heat source at roughly $0.06 per / kWh to be announced next month.

    Launching 18 July at the Power-Gen Africa Con in Johannesburg South Africa

    • Gnällgubben 3 years ago

      I remain unconvinced. Somehow out of the blue someone invents a sterling engine (effectively) that is 20 times more efficient than what anyone else has come up with? I don’t think so.

      • Steyn Enslin 3 years ago

        This has taken years and years of R&D, I would hardly call it out of the blue. Current Rankine and Kalina cycles operate at 4% efficiency since they discard 96% of the heat, whereas this REHOS technology do not discard any heat and operate at 92% efficiency.

        • Gnällgubben 3 years ago

          I still don’t believe you. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and I don’t see any of it.

          • Steyn Enslin 3 years ago

            I’ve presented you with the evidence, I’m not here trying to convince you, just spreading awareness.

            Why don’t you attend the Power-Gen Africa Conference in Johannesburg next month, the author of the paper published on ee publisher’s website today (per the link I’ve given) will be presenting on 18 July and will be officially launching the technology onto the world.

          • Gnällgubben 3 years ago

            No you have only presented some marketing material.

        • TheTransition 3 years ago

          The second law of thermodynamics says you’re wrong. This is not possible. You can’t break laws of physics.

          • Steyn Enslin 3 years ago

            Hahaha please dont show your ignorance like that. No rules of physics have been broken. The gain is from regenerative feedheating. Perhaps rather check the math for yourself, there is a pdf to download on the site

          • Rob 3 years ago

            To extract 100% of heat energy your low temperature vessel must be at absolute zero (0K or -273C). That would consume a lot of energy.

            The efficiency limit = 1 -Tc/Th where Tc and Th are in Kelvin.

            Assuming Tc = 273K (i.e. 0C) then to get 92% efficiency Th must be at 3,412 degrees. And that assumes no loss in any part of the system which isn’t possible. That means Th is even hotter.

            Allowing for minimum system losses the high temperature vessel would likely need to be hotter than the surface of the sun which creates a problem because you can’t transfer heat from the sun to this warmer body which begs the question as to the heat source for this system.

          • TheTransition 3 years ago

            Excellent analysis. Thank you.

          • Steyn Enslin 3 years ago

            Thank you Rob. Guys you need to understand that current Rankine and Kalina thermodynamic cycles is state of the art known technology used in most of earth’s power generation. These cycles can never produce energy from heat at more than carnot efficiency. These cycles on average reject 96% heat, operating at 4% efficiency (carnot 5.79%)

            The newly developed REHOS cycle I refer to however, uses regenerative feed-heating. It means NO heat is rejected out of the system and mathematically this calculates to being 92% efficient at converting heat to energy.

            This is the theory. In reality some heat is still lost in the process but it’s minimal as it’s not being rejected by design, it re-enters the cycle.

            Mathematically the cycle can be shown to be 92% efficient, however in the real world it’s only about 80%-90% given some heat dissipation occurs from the hardware. Still this is over 20 times more efficient than all known current technology.

          • Rob 3 years ago

            Steyn, the website you cite indicates that conventional technology operates at around 35% efficiency which contradicts your claim of 4%. The specific quote is here:

            “The waste heat so produced is in fact
            more than the generator power output of the power station, as the power
            station electrical output is only around 35% of the total energy in the
            fuel combusted.”

            The quote can be found here:

          • Steyn Enslin 3 years ago

            Cherry picking bits to suit your argument, but hey you read the website which was the point anyway.

            This new technology is about to take the world by storm – spread the word!

          • TheTransition 3 years ago

            If your machine worked, it would reduce the total amount of entropy in the Universe. This doesn’t happen.

          • Ron Horgan 3 years ago

            If no heat is rejected out of the system does this become a perpetual motion machine?

          • Steyn Enslin 3 years ago

            Hi Ron. The answer is no. An external heat input is required and that heat is converted to energy through NH3 steam expanding through a turbine. If you remove the heat input the system will no longer produce electricity.

    • Rob 3 years ago

      The article cites this is AUD 0.077/kWh. In USD terms that is $0.058/kWh

      That is less than your $0.06/kWh.

      So how is the cost “still ridiculously high”.

      • Steyn Enslin 3 years ago

        Thats only when the sun is shining, and you need to add the cost of storage. REHOS technology however, can generate 4 – 5 times the amount of electricity from the same solar irradiation, but with a load factor of 80% – 85% like base load power generators, instead of the 20% – 25% load factor of solar installations, as no power can be generated by a solar station when the sun is not shining. Even if the capital original investment was the same, the REHOS technology may use solar thermal energy storage in ambient temperature water collectors, creating the possibility of power generation on demand at a cost of 20 – 25% of the current PV power station.

        • Rob 3 years ago

          We’ve established that the cost per kWh produced is the same. So if you produce 4 times the amount of power and (and assuming that the running costs are proportionally similar) it follows that your power station costs 4 times as much as this array.

          If on the other hand your claim that the build cost is the same is true and you produce 4 times as much power it follows that your cost per kWh is 1.5 cents not the 6 cents you mentioned which contradicts your earlier claim.

          The arguments you make don’t seem to be internally consistent.

    • Jo 3 years ago

      What happened to the laws of thermodynamics?

  9. Eclectic Eel 3 years ago

    I’m always fascinated to hear the advances in engineering and solar cell technology making these projects cheaper than ever before. I’ve just got a couple of questions that relate to the new light weight and more dense packing of solar panels.

    How do the panels get cleaned after say a dry dusty summer in Barcaldine, and are the lighter frames able to stand up to intense thunderstorms which are becoming more frequent with global warming?

    • Rob 3 years ago

      The system is structurally certified to Australian conditions as fit for environment, even beyond local wind region rating. The development of the system involved wind tunnel testing. No problem with intense storms.

  10. RobSa 3 years ago

    Excellent news in this article. I want to see that big black streak disappear in the web widget at the top of the page for Queensland’s live generation of electricity.

    There is so much space on the top of large industrial buildings that could be used for small scale solar. Sporting and education facilities have many structure that are big enough for small arrays. Our roofs are going to become a lot more productive. Shopping centres need to grow more food on their rooftops. I thought there would be more mini wind turbines by now as well.

    • Greg Hudson 3 years ago

      I saw an interesting sign as I went up the escalator at Ikea on Dandenong Rd Melb…
      ”Don’t worry, this escalator is powered by our 1376 solar panels on the roof”
      I wonder if they are paying for any power ?

  11. Ray Miller 3 years ago

    Does anyone know what is the minimum size of the any renewable system to appear on the NEM?
    And to be considered “large scale renewable”?

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