Hot, humid, dusty and …. boring: Building solar farms in the outback is not piles of fun

Hot, humid, dusty and …. boring: Building solar farms in the outback is not piles of fun

Giles Parkinson 10 June 2022 11

Chichester Solar Farm Alinta Fortescue
Alinta’s Chichester solar farm. Image: Alinta Energy

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Australia currently has close to 7GW of large-scale solar facilities installed across the country, most of them close to the grid and townships.

Over the next decade, however, nearly 10 times that much will be added as various groups pursue ambitious green export dreams. Nearly all of them will be built in hot, remote regions. And it’s not going to be easy.

The biggest solar farm to be built in remote areas is the 60MW Chichester facility owned and operated by Alinta Energy, located in the Pilbara and sited between two of Fortescue Metals’ huge iron ore mines.

The difficulties of the project have been highlighted in a “knowledge sharing” report published by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency. Such reports are often a condition of funding and can provide a warts and all insight into what goes right, or what can go wrong, in the roll out of new technologies.

Sadly, few of these reports get much prominence, because for some reason the ARENA media team chooses not to promote them. But they provide a fascinating insight, and some lessons learned, that are both good reading and informative to those following in their footsteps.

The Chichester solar project delivers some good advice on those projects likely to follow over the next decade, in even more remote regions, but at unfathomable scale.

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The $30 billion Sun Cable project, for instance, hopes to build 20GW of large scale solar on an old cattle property in the Northern Territory.

A consortium of Intercontinental and CWP and others plans to build tens of gigawatts of solar (and wind) in two massive green hydrogen projects in W.A., while Fortescue itself is planning to build 2GW of solar in the Pilbara to help power its operations and turn it green.

And that’s just the start of plans for Australia’s ambitious green hydrogen and green ammonia projects – fuelled by wind and solar. It will require maybe 150 million solar panels on just the announced projects to date, but it’s going to require some careful planning.

The Knowledge Sharing report written by Alinta Energy highlights some of the problems – how to manage a work force operating in intense heat, humidity, dust, and with swarms of flies and monotonous work.

“The solar farm presented a unique set of H&S (health and safety) challenges,” the report notes.

“Firstly, the work was very laborious and monotonous. A total of 26,500 piles were driven and 167,000 panels were installed.

“The Pilbara summer is unrelentingly hot, often exceeding 40°C in the shade. Along with the heat, it can also be quite humid. The heat and humidity go hand in hand with swarms of flies.

“Strategies needed to be developed to manage the wellbeing of workers under these conditions, including early starts and early finishes, regular rest breaks, distributed ice buckets and temporary shading.

“However well managed, the heat of summer will result in a decline in productivity which needs to be allowed for,” the report notes. “Fatigue Management was a significant issue.”

Chichester solar farm dust Alinta ARENA
Source: AEMO report.

Anther key issue was the management of dust. The report from Alinta notes that many of the modules shipped to the site lay down almost flat for months while waiting to be installed. This was not a good idea.

“When in a horizontal position, the panels tend to collect a significant amount of dust over time,” the report says.

“With the wetting and drying cycle caused by morning dew, this dust became quite thick and ‘caked on’ over time. There is little or no rain from March to November in the Pilbara, so natural cleaning through rain did not occur.”

It recommends not siting solar modules near a processing plant, sealing the nearby roads, and stacking the panels in a near vertical position to reduce dust collection, and ensure there is an automatic cleaning solution.

The Chichester solar farm is part of the Fortescue Alinta solar gas hybrid project that includes a gas facility and transmission lines, and which received $24.2 million from ARENA and $90 million from the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF).

Further reports on the project are also due, including lessons learned on commissioning, and operations, but appear to have missed their deadline. They should make interesting reading.

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