Falling costs and improved technology are making solar an appealing energy option for business.

 Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

Last year, when Adelaide Airport won recognition for its efforts to manage carbon emissions, it decided to build further on that reputation. It came up with the idea to expand its solar-power generation from there relatively small 114 kilowatts capacity installed nearly a decade earlier. Plans were finalised for a 1.17MW solar power system to be set upon top of the airport’s multistorey carpark. The installation, which comprised 4500 photovoltaic solar panels, today counts as South Australia’s largest roof top solar-power system.

It contributes almost 10 per cent of the airport’s total power needs. “As prices for solar have fallen and grid power prices have generally increased, financial outcomes from solar have had a significant boost. This has led many businesses to move solar from an agenda item to action,” says David Naismith, executive general manager for commercial, industrial and government at Solgen Energy Group, the company that built the solar installation at Adelaide Airport.

Solgen, which provides turnkey solar-power systems for the commercial and industrial sector, is seeing the uptake of solar power in business grow rapidly, with opportunities opening up across a diverse range of industries.

In the past, demand for commercial solar was generally driven by early adopters, such as local councils and government that were keen to demonstrate solar applications to the community. But with the basics of solar power now generally well understood, the applications are growing. Solgen says it has projects covering large ground mount solar farms, multistorey solar carparks with charging stations, and solar pumping for agriculture.

The applications are enormous and the market is demanding more innovative solutions.

“We have a very busy New Ventures team that spends all its time vetting products and opportunities, continually looking for the next solution for our clients,” Mr Naismith says.

The company views project opportunities through a number of lenses. Firstly, a solar power system is designed to best fit the customer’s consumption profile. It is then modelled against financial returns that the system delivers, along with any relevant constraints unique to the site or client requirements.

Solgen draws upon its direct relationships with key global manufacturers to come up with product specifications and then deliver through its highly skilled project management team, which takes care of all approvals.

At the Adelaide Airport project, for instance, Solgen completely customised the solar distribution board and inverters into a single room on the top level of the car park, ensuring that valuable car parking space was not lost.

It also installed Trinasmart solar panels with the unique capability to mitigate the effects of shading from existing and potential infrastructure. In addition, a remote single switch allowed immediate shut-down, to improve overall safety of the system in the event of an emergency.

Mr Naismith emphasises that the value Solgen delivers comes through customising solutions. The planning phase with commercial and industrial solar is critical, he says, covering everything from approvals through to construction methodology and safety. Things need to run like clockwork, particularly in places such as hospitals, airports and schools.

A perfect example of the rigours of planning and approvals is Solgen’s recent roll-out of 1.75 MW of solar capacity at the National Broadband Network sites across Australia.

One stage of the project required building solar farms in remote locations next to satellite earth stations. The company needed to be certain that the installation would not interfere with the complex electrical infrastructure. In addition, it had to be sure everything on-site was ready to go.

Solar power generally works in unison with conventional grid power. Solar in a commercial environment is best utilised as part of a business’ energy mix – that is, alongside power drawn from the grid and potentially other sources. Solgen integrates the system with these sources to ensure ongoing reliability of power delivery to the business.

Current grid requirements mean that solar power systems need to shut down when the grid fails. However, as battery storage becomes viable for businesses and grid protection measures are put in place, providing back-up power will be possible in the event of grid failure. The company typically stands behind its energy generation forecasts with a power production warranty. This means if the system is supposed to deliver a certain amount of power over a year and it doesn’t, Solgen will reimburse the client for the power that wasn’t generated.

Solgen expects business and consumers to continue pressuring the grid to become more service-based, which will create opportunities for peer-to-peer energy trading and allow businesses to have far greater control over how they consume energy and what they pay for it.

“While solar will remain our core business, we need to keep innovating across its application and be mindful of adjacent technologies that in combination will maximise results for our clients,” Mr Naismith says.

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