Warwick Solar Farm: UQ taking power into its own hands

warwick solar farm
A panel installation at warwick solar farm

By Nichola Davies

The University of Queensland (UQ) will be the first university in the world to have all of its power come from its own renewable energy asset: the Warwick Solar Farm, which will reach full generation late this year.

The development of the Warwick Solar Farm, according to the university’s Vice Chancellor and President Professor Peter Høj AC, was first and foremost an act of leadership that demonstrates that a transition to renewables can be done at scale, that it’s practicable and makes economic sense.

Indeed, the bright minds at UQ also knew there had to be a better solution than being at the mercy of its annual $20 million energy bill, with that price having doubled in less than five years.

UQ project officer–energy management, Sarah Haskmann said this cost essentially made energy the university’s core business, even though it’s in the business of higher education and research.

Its students too, past and present, are focused on sustainability and greenhouse gas emissions reduction, so it wanted its students to see it taking a strong stance on a low-carbon future.

The university is no stranger to solar, having built Queensland’s first solar farm, a 3.3MW research facility at its Gatton campus (with fixed tilt, single-axis tracking and dual-axis tracking arrays) and more than 3 MW of systems distributed across the rooftops of the university’s buildings.

The 64MW project has taken approximately three years to get running, from feasibility studies to negotiation with the developer, reaching financial close and construction. It’s planned to finish commissioning and achieve full generation output later this year.

The development and applications phase began in mid-2017 with feasibility of whether the university could operate as 100 per cent renewable getting the all clear. UQ purchased the project from Terrain Solar in November 2018, beginning the construction phase shortly after with the signing of the EPC contract with Lendlease.

The land was previously used for rural activities, so a small amount of prep work was required to remove old farm structures and fencing.

“Solar farm construction is very sequential and repetitive, generally it begins with underground electrical installation (trenching, cable laying, and backfilling) and/or mounting structure piling works,” Ms Haskmann said.

“These can be done at the same time if planned well (you don’t want to put a pile through your underground cables!) Once piling is done, the mounting structures are installed next. In the case of Warwick Solar Farm, they are NEXtracker single-axis trackers. Once the mounting structure works have progressed a sufficient amount to keep ahead, the PV modules are mechanically installed behind the structural install crews (but left electrically disconnected and safe). The last task for the array field construction crews will be the above ground electrical installation works.

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“Whilst the arrays are being installed in the field, concurrent construction works are likely beginning on the plant switching station or substation, field based power stations (inverters and voltage step up equipment), and possibly harmonic filter and/or other ancillary power quality equipment.”

Ms Haskmann says the project has gone smoothly so far, with UQ’s previous solar experience a great advantage.

“Saying that, building a utility-scale generating plant that’s connected to the NEM, is still a complex activity,” she said.

“UQ and all parties involved have all learnt lessons and increased the knowledge base on such an undertaking. All this learning only strengthens the industry, especially if that knowledge is freely shared and incorporated into subsequent projects.”

The last stage is the commissioning phase, which for Warwick Solar Farm began late 2019 and will continue during 2020. This stage consists of testing all the array field installation, field power stations, switching station and harmonic filters. The most important and lengthy task in this stage is the grid commissioning, which commences once the solar farm is fully tested, compliant and physically ready for generation.

While 64MW may seem small in the scheme of Australian solar farms, Warwick boasts 204,540 solar panels, which are anticipated to generate 160,000 megawatt hours per annum, or enough to power 25,000 homes. That’s nearly five times as much as the town of Warwick would need, according to the 2016 Census.

In terms of ‘powering’ the university, the St Lucia campus, which is UQ’s largest and most energy-intensive site, has a daytime peak demand of ~25MW. So that, alongside the other solar assets owned by the university, well and truly covers its energy needs.

“Of course UQ has facilities and sites spread all over Queensland, and the solar farm isn’t connected to them directly, but all UQ sites use about 140,000 MWh per year – less than the solar farm will produce,” Ms Haskmann said.

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“UQ has chosen to become a ‘gensumer’ with the Warwick Solar Farm, which is a phrase used to describe an entity that is both a large energy consumer as well as a large energy generator.

“Warwick Solar Farm will sell its solar energy into the National Energy Market (NEM). UQ will then buy that energy back from the market at the same low price during the day when generation is abundant. Revenue earned from selling surplus daytime energy will then help offset the cost of energy the university needs to draw from the grid in evening peak-price times.”

In late August, CS Energy signed an offtake agreement with UQ to purchase a portion of the energy produced at Warwick Solar Farm.

As well as reducing the cost of operations for the university, it will become a centrepiece of the university’s education and research into renewables for its students across a range of academic disciplines. It also brings economic benefits to regional Queensland, and in the town of Warwick, that means creating more than 100 jobs during the height of construction as it’s experiencing the worst drought of a lifetime.

“Numerous local businesses have also worked on the project providing services as sub-contractors or suppliers,” Haskmann said.

“There are also a number of fulltime staff employed for O&M and facility management who are also Warwick locals.

“The township also benefited greatly from the economic influx that the project has brought. This has been through many channels, such as long term and short term rentals for the workforce, equipment and supplies procurement, retail, and fuel to name a few.

“UQ has also facilitated site visits during construction, with the Freestone State School having a visit to the site in 2019. The students from grades four, five and six were learning about power and electricity in their science class, and the excursion provided the perfect opportunity to see classroom concepts writ large.

“We hope to continue visits like these once the dedicated Visitor Centre on site officially opens to the public later in 2020.”

While it’s looking to be UQ’s last solar farm for a while as it’s projected to meet its electricity needs for the next 25 years, the university is embracing other renewable technologies and finding better ways to operate. For example, it recently installed a 1MW/2MWh Tesla battery at its St Lucia campus, is finishing off its complex solar-battery-diesel hybrid microgrid on Heron Island and completed its Central Energy Plant–a three million-litre thermal storage tank.

Ms Haskmann said there are many paths that can be taken on the renewable energy transition. Other universities in Australia are following UQ’s lead with their own solar farms, others have chosen PPA’s.

“There is no one way–each step along this transition to fossil fuel displacement is a positive one,” she said.