Australian startup develops pre-fabricated solar farm



A group of Australian engineers is busy working in a suburban Sydney workshop on a technology that they think could change the economics of large-scale solar in Australia.

The company – 5B – is working on a pre-fabricated and re-deployable solar farm solution: essentially meaning that the technology can be shipped to a project site ready made, and can then be packed up and moved when no longer needed.

That has big appeal for developers pondering the construction and labour costs of solar projects in regional and remote areas.

And it may be especially appealing to mine-sites and other operators, who may only need solar power for a 5 to 10-year project. Under this plan, the plant can simply be packed up and shipped to the next customer.

Chris McGrath, one of the founders of 5B, says the company is not yet ready to reveal all the details of the new technology. But he is promising a “cheap and fast way to deploy large-scale solar.”

The team – mostly alumni from listed Australian renewable energy company Infigen Energy and the University of New South Wwales – are currently working on a 20 kW module that they are looking to deploy in a 60 kW array at a site on the outskirts of Sydney.

If that works as planned, McGrath says, the company will have a “cookie-cutter” model that can then be applied in bigger arrays, up to tens of megawatts.

A prototype was installed last year, just to test the speed of deployment. A 6 kW array – slightly bigger than the average rooftop installation – was erected and installed in just 4 minutes. It had been pre-fabricated in the work shop.

McGrath says the attraction of these models are reducing installation and construction costs, particularly in remote areas.

The ability to pack multiple arrays into shipping containers means that they could be installed in a mine-site, say for five years, and then moved elsewhere.

Solar can significantly reduce the cost of diesel, but the fact that many mines operate for relatively short periods has been a block to solar’s deployment.

“These arrays will be an order of magnitude faster,” he says. “Essentially it is a logistics and deployment exercise.”

McGrath says construction and installation costs are a significant factor in the cost of large scale solar. The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) is currently examining 22 projects that is has short-listed for grants under a $200 million program.

McGrath suspects that many of these projects are getting under ARENA’s cut-off of AU$135/MWh (US$97/MWh) by taking a hair-cut on margins, as opposed to actual step-changes in the way the projects are proposed to be constructed. Significant cuts in installation, he says, could reduce the cost of installation to the magical $1/W (US$0.71/W), down from around $1.60-$1.80/W (US$1.14-US$1.40/W) now.

“It’s a very simple technology,” McGrath says, without wanting to go into the details at this stage. “Simplistically, we describe ourselves as a module logistics company, and what we are targeting is what we consider to be low hanging fruit. We want to get the cost of solar and renewable energy to the point it is so cheap it can compete without subsidies.

So their plan is to reduce labor onsite, do the construction in a factory, and that also addresses many of the overheads that people gloss over – including interest expenses during construction and standing construction costs.

“We end up with a simple and low cost system that can be assembled in a factory close to where the project is. We want to get to $1 a watt pretty quickly.”

McGrath says the off-grid market in Australia is estimated at around 5 GW, of which around 4GW is gas, and much of the rest is higher cost diesel, burning more than AU$1 billion of fuel per annum.

The diesel component (and in some situations the gas component), is more expensive than solar, however the uncertain lifespan of many mines has limited the deployment of solar … until now.

This article was originally published in RenewEconomy. It is re-published with permission.