In the context of global developments in large scale solar, a 3.275MW array may not amount to much. But in Australia it’s a major development, and in Queensland, the Sunshine State, it is actually the biggest solar photovoltaic installation to date.
The Gatton solar research facility – at the Gatton campus of the University of Queensland on the western slopes – is being hailed as the largest and most significant research facility in Australia, and indeed in the southern Hemisphere.
The array features thin film solar panels installed by First Solar, but in several different formations. One 630kW block will feature single axis tracking, while another 630kW block will feature dual axis tracking, a first for First Solar modules.
Within six months, a 600kW, 760kWh Kookam lithium phosphate ion battery storage array will be installed by Mpower – making the facility a key research centre for edge-of-grid and off-the-grid installation of large scale solar arrays.
UQ’s Paul Meredith calls it a “world first” and a potential “game changer” because of the information it will provide to help remote networks absorb and integrate intermittent renewables such as solar.
The grid at Gatton is serviced by a 12kV spur line, making it typical of the tens of thousands of kilometres of regional poles and wires that make up Australia’s grid, and its massive cost of electricity delivery.
Most network operators realise that the future must resolve around localised grids, and more local generation, rather than centralised fossil fuel generators. That will only occur through the installation of arrays such as that at Gatton.
Meredith says the facility will be important in providing information if the extra cost of tracking devices is justified by increased output. Already, early signs show production earlier and later in the day, and a flatter curve as the solar arrays begin production.
He expects the dual axis trackers to lift the yield out of the solar arrays to the “mid 20 per cent” from the high teens. The battery storage will provide further information about the management of the solar output and its integration into a grid, or its ability to operate off-grid.
“We all know there are massive off grid opportunities for solar – we can’t keep on using diesel at 60c – 70c/kwh,” Meredith told RenewEconomy in an interview. But it will be equally important for those seeking to incorporate solar and storage in existing networks, possibly as an alternative to expensive upgrades.
The array means UQ has nearly 5MW of solar power, including the 1.2MW array on the rooftop of its St Lucia campus, which remains the largest rooftop installation in the country. Funding came through a legacy of the now defunct “solar flagships” program, and is part of a research facility managed by the Department of Education.
The facility was formally opened on Friday by Federal Industry and Science Minister Ian Macfarlane. The minister earlier this week rejected a compromise offer on the renewable energy target, a move that solar companies say will close the door on investments in large scale solar in Australia. He also advocates the closing of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, the principal funder of new large scale solar projects.
“One of the world’s great challenges is ensuring safe and sufficient access to sustainably sourced energy,” Macfarlane said in a prepared statement.
“This facility will not only benefit the University in terms of its own electricity supply, but the knowledge coming from the research will enable the global community to be better equipped in addressing energy security needs. It’s an honour to be the one to throw the switch on such a significant solar project.”
UQ Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Peter Høj said the Gatton facility was one of the most advanced research facilities of its kind in the world, and its commissioning was a landmark in UQ’s clean energy journey.
First Solar Asia-Pacific Regional Manager Jack Curtis said the Gatton facility’s advanced capability and research potential was unrivalled almost anywhere in the world.
“This landmark installation will be a showcase for the region, helping to ensure that solar plays a strong role in Australia’s energy mix,” he said. “The lessons learned here will have global impact.”