UQ tests solar limits with opening of Queensland’s biggest solar array

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UQ opens its 3.275MW solar research facility, with single and dual tracking and battery storage to test solar integration in off-grid and edge of grid locations.

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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.

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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.”



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  1. strez2Dmax 4 years ago

    Sounds good. Will ongoing & immediate data covering all solar harvests and storage performance be available to any Aussie (taxpayer) who wishes to view it ?
    Is the gear mounted high enough to permit sheep to graze beneath when the trackers elevated (crook day – sheep in & fed- grass ‘mown’) ?

  2. zn 4 years ago

    Australia has heaps of sun. UQ is right up at the top of Australia’s best universities. This is a good sign of things to come.

  3. Coley 4 years ago

    Pity they let that two faced sod MacFarlane open it, a highly publicised withdrawal of the invitation and the reasons for it wouldn’t have hurt.

    • Motorshack 4 years ago

      My mother used to say, “don’t get mad, get even”, but my motto is “don’t get mad, get paid.”

      Point is, when you get a senior politician like MacFarlane to proclaim very publicly how wonderful the big solar project is, you wedge him away from the fossil fuel interests in a way that is hard to undo. The pol in question is pretty well stuck with the statement.

      Also – assuming that UQ is a public university, funded by tax dollars – this sort of thing is the way that university administrators keep the politicians happy about giving them money, including research money for projects like this.

      As the saying goes, you can accomplish almost anything – as long as you are willing to let someone else take the credit.

  4. Alen T 4 years ago

    Thin film finally making itself known here in Oz (Nyngan is using thin film technology too). UQ has made a good amount of its data on the panel performance public, so I’ll be eager to see the thin film performance here too. However, I do wish they also had a smaller system without trackers.

    Keep up

    • Motorshack 4 years ago

      Good point, but mathematically the comparison between single- and dual-axis tracking will also validate their abstract model about as well as a comparison between non-tracking and tracking systems. It is only that a straight-up comparison between tracking and non-tracking will be more obvious to those who are less comfortable with the math, and politically that could be useful. No doubt.

      I’m a retired software designer, with experience in both industrial controls and navigation systems, and last year I did an analysis of these trade-offs with an eye to building a small tracking PV system. The math indicates very strongly that east-west tracking is very worthwhile, but that north-south tracking is barely worth the cost. For the north-south axis you have to be very careful not to spend too much on the hardware and construction costs.

      In my own case I settled for what is called “seasonally adjusted” tracking, done by hand. However, manual adjustment only works on very small, ground-mounted systems. So, on large scale systems it is likely to be all-or-nothing: either no north-south tracking at all or something fully automated.

      Unfortunately, some moderately expensive dental work chewed up my working capital, so I never built the system. Thus, I will be interested in further reports on this project.

      Another possibility, by the way, is reflectors mounted on the top and bottom edges of the array. This both increases the effective size of the array, and captures radiation that would be lost when the array is not fully centered. Several projects have shown that this does work well, but there are also problems. Among other things, there is increased wind loading, and you have to be careful not to overheat the panels. Avoiding those problems will naturally add to the capital costs of the system, and possibly the operating costs as well.

      • Alen T 4 years ago

        Unfortunately I have limited knowledge on tracking technology, but if you could point me to destination where the necessary ormulas and equations are positioned for this comparison, I’d be keen on giving the math a go. Appreciate it either way.

        • Motorshack 4 years ago

          Ooh! A year ago that would have been easy, but, among other things I have since upgraded my OS and in the process lost my previous browsing history. So, I cannot just pull out some typical websites. Give me a day or so, and I’ll see what I can post here.

          In the mean time, I can say that the hardest thing about understanding tracking is to visualize the relationship between the vertical axis (i.e. the one for east-west tracking), the axis of the earth, and the position of the sun. Basically the axis of the mount and that of the earth must be parallel to one another. Once you get the right picture in your mind most of the rest will make a lot more sense. There are nice diagrams that make this pretty clear, but that is one of the things that I will have to find again.

          If your goal is a DIY system – which I heartily recommend, by the way – there is one website in particular that is run by a graduate electronics engineer, that sells a very cheap sensor system, and that has lots of example projects to look at. I have actually chatted with that guy by email, so I am sure I can dig that up for you fairly quickly. It will have to wait a bit, though, because I was in the middle of something else when I noticed the email notice from Disqus.

          In the mean time, if you just Google phrases like “tracking solar mounts” you will find a ton of stuff to look at. The problem is to sort the sheep from the goats, which took me several weeks.

          Finally, you want to avoid designs that involve a single massive steel pole sunk in tons of concrete, with a giant rack poised on the top of the pole. This is expensive, overbuilt, and still does not give the resistance to wind loading that lighter more sophisticated mounting systems provide.

          Again, sorry I cannot post something right off the bat.

        • Motorshack 4 years ago

          Actually, if you want to start with the math, go dig up a trig book and look at the graph of the cosine function.

          At zero degrees (i.e. when the panel is pointed straight at the sun, the value of the cosine is one. At ninety degrees (when the sun is rising or setting and you have a fixed mount) the value is zero. This is just what you would expect physically: maximum radiation at noon, and none at sunrise and sunset.

          Now, notice that you can get eight or ten degrees away from vertical, and the cosine curve is still pretty flat, so small deviations from perfectly centered do not cause very large energy losses. However, at forty-five degrees the curve slopes steeply downward, so that is the range you want to avoid.

          Also, the total energy absorbed by a fixed mount is proportional to the area under the cosine curve. So you get proportionately more input around noon, and far less at the extremes of the day. Again this makes sense in physical terms. Just think how long your shadow gets just before sundown.

          Finally, what tracking does is simply to turn the cosine curve into a rectangle, or nearly so. Input remains constant all day, and only drops off when the sun actually sets. The reason is simply that the tracker keeps the panel pointed straight at the sun all day, so input remains maximal. The graph of that is a rectangle, and again the total energy is proportional to the area under the curve.

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