Our investments in solar farms

Nectr’s parent company, Hanwha Energy Australia is in the process of developing two solar farms as part of our focus on a sustainable planet. On completion, these solar farms will produce enough energy to power up to 65,000 homes, firmly cementing our stance on using renewable energy sources to supply our customers.

We recently had the opportunity to chat with Nick Morley, our Project & Technical Services Lead about our Solar developments. here’s what he had to say:

Q1) What is your name, and what is your position at Nectr?

Hi, I’m Nick Morley. I’m the Project and Technical Services Lead here at Nectr and my job is to oversee and lead delivery of the utility-scale solar farm assets on behalf of the merchant energy side of the business.

Q2) What do you love about solar farms and the work that you do?

I love having a job that is on the front lines of energy transition. I became interested in renewable energy whilst I was at university (2010.) At the time, I thought solar was too expensive, but my first job allowed me to work for a solar company where I saw the costs of solar panels halve in a single year, and that really convinced me that solar had enormous potential to reduce the costs of energy and that it was going to change the world. As a consequence, it is one of the most exciting industries to work in, as you’re really seeing the energy industry being transformed in front of you.

Q3) How long does it take to build a solar farm? What’s the usual timeline?

The typical construction time for a solar farm is between 1-2 years, depending on how large the project is; and there are also a number of years of development work that go into the project before you can start construction – you need to gain development approval, and conduct a large number of investigations, both on the environmental side and grid side before you can actually start building it.

Something really interesting about solar farms is that it is actually like building with LEGO. You have modular piece of the solar farm, and you repeat that thousands of times until you end up with the overall asset. As a result it’s possible to keep relatively short construction schedules that don’t increase proportionally with the construction size. Just because a project is twice as big, it doesn’t necessarily mean it takes twice as long to build, because you just keep adding more resources to keep repeating those modular pieces of construction, and by doing that, you can still build a larger asset in a similar timeframe.

Q4) How do you choose the right location for a solar farm?

There are a number of overlapping factors. The first thing you need to look at is if there is a reasonable solar resource. There aren’t a lot of solar farms in Siberia, or the North and South pole! Once you choose a general location with good amount of sun, solar will be effective – we don’t need to put them in a desert to be economical.

The next thing is access to grid infrastructure and customers – you need someone to consume the power you’re producing and you need to get the power to them. Transmission lines and substations are very expensive to build, so you need to be close to existing infrastructure.

Q5) How important is the local community when it comes to deciding a location?

It is complicated for a small community to host a large project of any kind, and it’s very important to work with the community to ensure the benefits from the project are spread as widely as possible. There are enormous economic benefits that can come during the construction phase, and there are also other ongoing economic benefits that come from the solar farm during the operations phase as a variety of contractors and local businesses support the maintenance of the facility.

It is important when building a project like a solar farm to engage very closely with the community to ensure that you’re adding value for local businesses and accommodating any local community requirements. We always focus on making sure we design and develop the project in a way that is a win-win for our customers and the local community.

Q6) Why are Nectr building/producing solar farms?

Nectr is an energy retail business, and we need to supply our customers with affordable, clean energy. Solar farms are one of the best ways of doing that. It’s not the only way – you can also use wind energy or hydro-electric technology. You also need some form of storage technology to support times when renewable energy generation is low, such as battery energy storage, pumped hydro, or even gas in some cases to meet customer demand. But solar in general is one of the cheapest forms of clean energy that’s available, and so that’s why it’s a key technology that we want to take advantage of to provide that service to our customers.

Q7) How big are the solar farms and how many panels will approximately be on the solar farms?

We currently have two solar farms at fairly advanced stages of development. The larger of the two is Jindera Solar Farm, which produces 120 megawatts of power at its peak capacity. The project is around 520 hectares in size will use roughly 300,000 solar panels. The second project we’re developing is Gregadoo Solar Farm. That’s a little bit smaller at 43 megawatts. That project is about 150 hectares in area and will use approximately 80,000 panels.

Q8) How many people are needed to manage a solar farm?

Any solar farm over about 20 megawatts in size will need to have a number of full-time staff on site. Most projects of ours will have somewhere between two to five full-time staff, but those are just the people who are doing the day-to-day management of activities on the solar farm. That includes maintaining the equipment, interacting with the panels, and interacting with the control systems.

There are many more external contractors and people that get involved in the overall operation of a solar farm – they have to perform testing and maintenance of all the electrical equipment within the solar farm. We’ll also be engaging with a large number of contractors on ecological landscaping, vegetation management, and in some cases, the cleaning of solar panels. On a day-to-day basis however, you only need that small number of people on site.

Q9) Why are solar farms important for the Australian future?

So, I personally believe that solar farms are going to be one of the most critical pieces of infrastructure for Australia’s economic future. Most people have heard of the phrase “baseload power”, which is generally thought of as large thermal generators like coal which run 24 hours a day. This isn’t my idea, but other great thinkers in the renewable energy industry are putting forward the idea of a future where we won’t actually have any baseload power at all. What we will have is “base-cost” renewables, which will be the cheapest power you can get from wind and solar. When that power is available it will form the bulk of our energy supply. Other firming technologies such as battery energy storage, pumped hydro and perhaps some gas and other renewable-based fuels like hydrogen will be used to top up the gaps.

The transformational thing about base-cost renewables is when you have this very, very cheap energy, there’s all kinds of great things that you can do with it. One example is developing a hydrogen industry – Australia can’t have a hydrogen industry without having very cheap renewable energy to produce the hydrogen. There are also many other applications, such as the production of green steel and concrete, or the refining of other materials that we currently mine out of the ground and ship overseas for processing. All those kinds of things can be done locally if we have very cheap energy to do that work, and that’s how our export industries can compete in a future where we are no longer exporting large amounts of fossil fuels.

Q10) Is Australia leading the way in solar farms? What are our targets?

I think Australia has struggled to have a really clear set of federal targets, but despite that I believe we should definitely still be considered a world leader. There are other countries that are doing more in some areas, but what’s unique about Australia is how quickly the share of variable renewable energy is growing in our grid. If you combine rooftop solar with our utility scale activity, we are achieving some of the highest penetrations of solar within our energy system of any other country in the world. It’s remarkable, because the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) is presently talking about being ready to have periods of 100% solar energy penetration in the grid within the next few years.

This doesn’t mean that the country will run on 100% solar power all the time, but the expectation is that there will be periods where the combined output of rooftop solar and utility-scale solar could meet 100% of demand. It poses both opportunities and challenges that we are solving in real time, and so Australia is definitely a world leader when it comes to the integration side of renewable energy. This means figuring out the control systems and market mechanisms to allow the energy system to function with very high levels of variable renewables.

FUN FACT: A lot of people don’t know you need sheep on a solar farm, why are they important?

Vegetation on site needs to be managed, so grass needs to be kept under control. Part of the reason for this is weed control, the other part of it is for fire hazard prevention. You also want to keep the vegetation low because that maximises the amount of energy that you’re able to collect from the rear side of the panels. There are many reasons why we want to control the vegetation, but not every solar farm uses sheep to minimise it. Plenty of solar farms like to use mowers to control vegetation, but the reason we use sheep is because they are the best kind of mower that you can get – they’re also free, so it’s a win, win.

Another great part of this is that the solar farms create a synergy between farmers in the local community and the land used for panels. They can continue to use the land to graze their sheep with the panels having a minimal impact on farming. Sheep are also really good at getting into awkward areas – mowers might have difficulty accessing the vegetation around the trackers and the panel mounting structures but sheep can keep these areas controlled easily and effectively.

FUN FACT TWO: What is a quirky fun fact about solar farms?

I wouldn’t really call this quirky, but found it very interesting. One of my favourite fun facts is that you only need about 0.1% of the Earth’s surface area to meet our entire energy demand from solar. Most people imagine that there’s actually not enough space for solar to play a very large role in our energy system, and it’s absolutely not the case.

Want to get involved with solar?

If you found the interview interesting and were considering solar as an option for your home, then we have a range of products to suit your needs. We offer affordable options for both our solar and solar + battery bundles.

We also have a Nectr Solar Home Preparation Checklist ready for those who are further along in the solar process and need more information on solar considerations before they start.