A new solar research facility being completed at the University of Queensland’s Gatton campus will be the largest in Australia – and the entire southern hemisphere. The facility will support innovation in the Australian solar industry and provide new insights regarding the integration of large-scale renewable power plants into the electricity grid.

The Gatton research facility is the product of a private and public sector collaboration between the University of Queensland, the University of New South Wales, AGL PV Solar Developments and American solar PV manufacturer, First Solar. An investment of $41.7 million was provided through the Federal Government’s Education Infrastructure Fund.

About the plant

The plant consists of 40,000 First Solar CdTe Flat Panels (an advanced thin-film photovoltaic panel) covering 10ha and will produce enough energy to power more than 450 average Australian homes.

The array will include fixed panel, single-axis and dual-axis tracking arrays so that researchers can compare and contrast the electrical and economic performance of multiple PV mounting technologies. The project will also incorporate a megawatt-hour-scale battery storage research station.

First Solar is responsible for both the design and the full construction of the solar array and will continue to play a role in the research agenda.

An industry/research partnership

All projects funded through the Solar Flagships Program needed to have a research partner.

The Gatton facility will act as a pilot plant for the research component of the Nyngan (102MW) and Broken Hill (53MW) solar plant projects being constructed in New South Wales by First Solar for AGL Energy. These large-scale solar farms will be integrated directly into the transmission grid.

According to Craig Froome, Clean Energy Program Manager at the University of Queensland’s Global Change Institute, the partnership with First Solar came about in light of the success of the institute’s other solar projects.

“We had an existing 1.2MW Solar Research Array at our St Lucia project and although not with First Solar, they were aware of our research activities and we had discussed possible research projects.”

From left: Ryan Smith, Site Manager, Paul Meredith, UQ Solar Director and Scott Newton, Construction Manager, inspect PV cells at the solar facility.

From left: Ryan Smith, Site Manager, Paul Meredith, UQ Solar Director and Scott Newton, Construction Manager, inspect PV cells at the solar facility.

Research for innovation

The primary purpose of the solar research facility is to conduct research into the economic and technical details of integrating large-scale renewable power plants into the conventional electricity grid.

This will be achieved by taking a holistic approach and investigating various aspects such as energy storage, plant optimisation, power systems and the impact of renewable energy on the National Electricity Market.

The battery storage facility will enable research aiming to address issues with the intermittent nature of solar energy, which complicates its inclusion in the grid. It will improve understanding of the value of short- and medium-term energy storage, its impact on the quality of power supply and any resulting economic benefits.

“Our work will help build national capacity for research in solar power deployment, and will have global significance,” said Professor Paul Meredith of UQ’s Global Change Institute.

Mr Froome said that one of the facility’s most important roles will be in demonstrating the potential and viability of the large-scale solar industry in Australia and encouraging distribution businesses to allow connection.

“Solar, like most renewable technologies, is intermittent and this can create issues for distribution networks. They are therefore hesitant to allow large-scale renewable energy projects, particularly in areas of low demand. The Broken Hill and Nyngan projects will feed into the transmission network, whilst the Gatton project will feed into Energex’s distribution network. It will demonstrate how projects of this size can be used in commercial and industrial size applications – as well as looking into the benefits of both tracking systems and battery storage.”

The challenges of large-scale grid integration

One of the main challenges for the integration of large scale solar plants into the grid is convincing distribution companies to allow connection.

According to Mr Froome, this will always need to be addressed on a site-by-site basis.

“For example, we had no problems with our array at St Lucia Campus as there was never any possibility of exporting electricity to the grid – we were always going to use what was generated.

“I believe that the only way we can prove that many of the perceived problems are not as bad as they think is through demonstration,” he said.

Overall, Mr Froome believes that the future is bright for the Australian solar industry.

“Australia has a high level of solar generation, but to date most of this has been in the residential sector. The challenge now is to prove that it can also work in the commercial and industrial sectors as well as at a utility scale.

“Australia has more sunshine than most countries in the world, including those that have utility-scale solar farms. As such, I believe the future for solar is good,” he said.

“Eventually with electricity generation, you utilise those resources that are most abundant and economically viable in your geographical area. This is becoming true for solar in Australia and will become more so as the battery storage sector matures.”

“I think that battery storage will be a key factor moving forward – it will remove the intermittency as well as providing an opportunity to load-shift if required.”


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