Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The University of Queensland Solar Array

As hopefully many of you are aware, a couple of months back the largest flat-panel solar PV system in Australia was opened at the University of Queensland. With just over 5000 solar panels spread across the rooftops of 4 buildings it's an impressive sight.

The UQ Solar Array

The array can generate 1.22 megawatts at peak production and is expected to supply 5-6% of the peak power demand of UQ. With a peak demand of ~25Mw UQ is a big energy user so it is good that it's electricity just got a little greener. So good on UQ for building it and also to Prof Paul Meredith for all his work making it happen. No word on whether Paul enjoys being the new poster boy for the university as a consequence.

Professor Paul Meredith

This system isn't just being used to provide electricity though, it's also a research tool for studying intermittent power sources, use of battery storage and panel shading analysis etc. The UQ solar energy website also has a live feed where you can view historical plus real time data about how much electricity the solar array is generating.

The fact that the array is the largest in the country also shows how far we have to go in getting significant amounts of solar PV onto the grid. The UQ solar array is 1.22 Mw, while the next largest is on the roof of the Adelaide show grounds and comes in a 1 Mw. A large coal fired power plant would often be ~1000Mw. Also due to different capacity factors a ~1000Mw coal plant may well generate the same amount of power at ~2000Mw (or more) of solar PV.

Obviously one of the advantages of solar PV is its modular nature in that you don't need to make your power plants 1000Mw. But of course size does help with economies of scale. According to UQ the cost of the panels + installation was around $4 for every watt of generation capacity. Obviously this is more expensive than the coal price for a large electricity user like UQ, but I think it will eventually pay for itself in lower electricity costs (UQ gives a saving on the website but it is not clear to me if this has been calculated from the domestic tariff or the actual UQ tariff). One thing that will make it break even much more quickly would be the introduction of a carbon price, one reason why pricing carbon will be a boon for renewable energy.

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