All Energy 2013: Unique challenges in utility scale

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While small in comparison to established utility scale solar markets such as California and Germany, the unique challenges to developing large scale solar PV in Australia include extreme heat, snakes and sheep, as reported by presenters at the All Energy conference yesterday.

Mark Rayner, project developer with Western Australia’s Verve Energy, shared some of his experiences in realising the 10 MW Greenough River solar farm, currently the country’s biggest. Rayner made a presentation on the first day of the All Energy conference and said that much can be learned from developing the AUD50 million project, which took three-and-a-half years to develop.

"There should be no impediments to rolling out large scale PV in Australia," Rayner enthused, "and big benefits to communities in regional Australia can flow in the form of job creation during the construction phases." He said that while the price tag of the 10 MW solar farm may seem high, special grid infrastructure had to be put inlace to support the project. Rayner said that he is confident that PV project costs Down Under will come down as volumes increase. The development of specialised utility scale solar contractors will be a major factor in this, said Rayner.

Rayner also showed photos of a sheep trial currently underway at the Greennough River solar farm. The project was developed by First Solar, which also provides the O&M services, and the American firm is assessing whether introducing grazing sheep to the installation will keep grass in check, without damaging the installation itself.

While the 10 MW plant is small by international standards, Rayner hopes that the project can be expanded in size. Indications have previously been made that the project could be doubled in size, and Rayner told pv magazine that there is space enough for the project to be tripled or quadrupled in size.

First Solar engineers, when working on the project, had to alter some of their construction methods, the Verve Energy project developer said. Normally the U.S. engineers would have like to carry out extensive earth moving works to create a completely flat surface for the installation. However while working at the Greenough River site, Verve Energy requested that such efforts be kept as a minimum, to reduce dust creation, in both the long and short term at the site. As water is scarce in the remote part of the state of Western Australia, reducing the need for it be used for dust control during earth moving was a big concern.

SMA’s Alex Popovic was also a presenter at the All Energy conference. The German inverter firm supplied the Greenough River project, and Popvic said that ensuring the inverters could deal with the high temperatures that can occur during the summer months was a challenge. Referring to competitor products, Popovic said: "Some inverters have a real difficulties in dealing with heat, and that’s a big issue in Australia."

In his presentation Popovic also noted that ensuring that spare parts can be delivered to remote locations in regional Australia is also a challenge SMA has had to address. SMA Australian operations are based in Sydney, where the firm has an office with 30 staff.

Daniel Ruoss, the Director of Canadian Solar’s PV Project Business said that wildlife is also a factor to cope with at utility scale installations in Australia. The country’s venomous snakes can make unwelcome guests, making their way into combiner boxes. "Safety has to a be a high priority always when developing projects," said Ruoss.