Alice Solar Centre: a treasure out of sight


2586 solar centre OKBy ERWIN CHLANDA
The Solar Centre, part of the Desert Knowledge precinct, “is the largest multi-technology solar demonstration facility in the southern hemisphere”.
That seems a big call for a bunch of solar panels – it seems everybody’s got one these days – most of which are many years old.
But it is what doesn’t meet the eye that gives this claim credibility, explains Ekistica Pty Ltd, the energy and engineering consultancy currently managing projects worth $600m in Australia, South East Asia and New Guinea, and also operating from the precinct.
The brain work using these panels, tucked away in a corner of the precinct, is happening in renewable energy labs across the world.
Sheena Ong, a graduate engineer from Ekistica, and Lyndon Frearson, its managing director, provided a comprehensive explanation of the centre which is owned by Desert Knowledge Australia (DKA) and operated by Ekistica, managing the access to and use of the data on the centre website.
This is an edited version of their explanation – its full text is here.
In the solar industry it is rare to see a collection of multiple photo voltaic (PV) types or configurations in one location, let alone encompassing the breadth that the Solar Centre represents.
The different configurations include fixed-tilt and tracking systems (both single and dual axis tracking) and also range from ground-mounted arrays (in the majority) to roof-mounted. There are multiple makes and models represented, as well as countries of manufacture.
Similar facilities, such as the ones Colorado and Germany, may test as many technologies but the tests are usually conducted on an individual module level, rather than on a system level.
Similarly, the CSIRO test facility in Newcastle (which was developed in partnership with Ekistica and the Solar Centre) is focused on individual modules rather than systems.
Importantly, the Solar Centre also has the benefit of age and the continuous nature of the data – over 90% of all solar modules installed in Australia, either residential or commercial, were installed after the Solar Centre was developed. So the Solar Centre forms a sound basis for highlighting the technical performance that we are likely to expect from solar PV plants in Australia, in advance of it actually occurring within the broader energy system.
In the past financial year the Solar Centre website received 10,465 visitors and 2,069 data downloads. The demographics of those downloading data were as follows: 33% researchers, 22% students, 18% private citizens, 11% designers, 7% manufacturers, 4% investors, 3% developers and 2% installers.
2586 Solar Centre Opening OK

Opening of the centre in 2008. The tallest in the group is rock singer Peter Garrett, Federal Environment Minister at the time. Photo courtesy of Robert Taylor.

Are there peer reviews of the facility?
There have been no peer reviews of the facility per se, but the data from the facility has been used in a number of peer-reviewed academic and research papers, including papers and reports issued by the CSIRO and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), located in Colorado, the United States’ primary laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development.
Alice Springs’ arid conditions make it the perfect place to test solar technologies. There are at least 12 developers (many with multiple setups) that independently requested to demonstrate their technology at the Solar Centre, further to (not including) the initial wave associated with the earlier Government-funded phase of the project.
This is also not including the handful of independent research bodies requesting other forms of study sited at the Solar Centre. As for technology types, please see our response above and let us know if elaboration is needed.
The centre’s online graphs compare, in real time, the respective performance of the 41 solar panels installations.
The graphs are highly customisable. Their default view shows real-time electricity generation (to the most recent five minutes) on the current day.
The graphing parameters can also be controlled by the user to display data for custom date ranges (looking back days, months and even years), or specific arrays of interest (single array data can be viewed or multiple arrays’ data displayed on the one graph side-by-side, normalised for fairness).
There are contextual climate data, such as solar irradiance conditions.
Most users of the data looking to do further detailed analysis will not rely on the graphing page itself, rather, they will download the data sets they are interested in and then conduct their analysis on that data. The graphing is largely there to provide a snapshot prior to conducting detailed analysis.
In what significant way has this, or any other function of the solar installation, advanced the development of solar installation?
The data from the Solar Centre has informed solar development in many respects – by multiple user demographics and for various applications. Some examples are:
• Product research and development by PV module manufacturers has been informed by their testing setups at the Solar Centre, as seen by some manufacturers coming back for repeat installations using subsequent new or emergent technology ranges.
• University and independent research groups have used the data for internal research, reflected in the queries we often receive from academics about the data, and multiple scientific papers have cited data from the Solar Centre, as well as international conference presentations.
• Investors have accessed the data as part of their own due diligence on solar PV investment, thereby supporting the uptake of solar in Australia (and beyond) in an objective and independent manner (note the Solar Centre never endorses specific makes/models but avails the data for open access, as per our data terms).
It is also worth mentioning the positive educational collateral of the Solar Centre: school groups and the general public often visit the site and this has fostered interest and understanding of STEM, sustainability and energy which in turn improves public support and empowers future proponents of solar development.
What is the cost / benefit of the DKA’s solar activities?
The Solar Centre is self-sustaining and financially sustainable. It does not receive ongoing government support for its operation and has not done so since the initial capital grant was made in 2007 for its construction.
On average, it provides about 40% of the Desert Knowledge Precinct’s electricity and garners renewable energy certificates.
The sale of electricity to tenants on the precinct provides sufficient revenue to maintain the ongoing operation and development of the Solar Centre.
Any surplus revenue from the operation of the Solar Centre are set aside for future maintenance and development of the Centre.
Aside from the original group of installations, all installations of technologies over the last seven years have been entirely self-financed by the various technology suppliers as they have recognised the benefit of testing and validating their technologies at the centre.
A range of local contractors – electricians to data service providers, engineers and project managers to ground maintenance workforce – are continually engaged.
The Solar Centre supports the local economy as much as it delivers benefits to users nationally and internationally, and on this current trajectory, we anticipate many years of diverse stakeholder and public benefit ahead.


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