Powering future leaders

An image of solar panels at the UQ Warwick Solar Farm.

The UQ Warwick Solar Farm. Image Glenn Hunt

The UQ Warwick Solar Farm. Image Glenn Hunt

Australia’s renewable energy research capacity has been boosted with the completion of the UQ Warwick Solar Farm in 2020. UQ is also investing in future leaders in this space, with students gaining valuable experience that will help Queensland reach its renewable energy targets by 2030. 

When you ask Professor Tapan Saha about the pride he feels at UQ’s giant strides in renewable and sustainable energy projects, there’s a lot for him to consider.

That’s primarily because he has been a UQ staff member since 1996, and in that time has witnessed a world of positive change, particularly in the past decade.

“I’m very proud, because when you look back, even just 10 years, Queensland as a state had very little renewable activity,” Saha said.

“We’re now at a stage where UQ can produce more energy than it needs, with the 64-megawatt Warwick Solar Farm, 3.3-megawatt Gatton Solar Research Facility, and 2.5 megawatts from the central St Lucia campus, making us energy neutral.

“A lot of people have contributed along the way – and I think previous Vice-Chancellor Professor Peter Høj AC deserves particular credit for his visionary direction. But for me to be able to say I’ve been involved since day one on many of our largest renewable projects is something I cherish.

“I’m heartened to see our students and the wider community having access to the benefits of these facilities, not only to improve their everyday lives, but to harness the research, and understand more about meeting our needs for the future.

“There’s a tremendous amount of happiness in the work we do because I know it will benefit students, consumers and ultimately the planet.”

An image of solar panels at the UQ Warwick Solar Farm.

Image: Glenn Hunt

Image: Glenn Hunt

The UQ Warwick Solar Farm was officially opened in July this year. The power generated at Warwick, in addition to what is being produced at Gatton and St Lucia, will make UQ the first major university in the world to offset 100 per cent of its electricity use with renewable power produced by its own assets.

The output of the solar farm will be about 160GWh per annum – the equivalent of powering more than 25,000 households, or reducing coal consumption by more than 60,000 tons.

The development of the solar farm isn’t just an economic decision, with industry and government looking to UQ for expertise and leadership in renewable technologies.

In addition to being the leader of UQ Solar, Saha is supervising the ‘Enabling the Queensland Power Systems of the Future’ project, funded by the Queensland Government.

The project is developing new platforms to investigate the security of Queensland’s power system and support the state’s target of 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030.

Professor Tapan Saha at the UQ Warwick Solar Farm.

Saha is also leading research at the UQ Industry 4.0 Energy TestLab, established in partnership with multinational Siemens, and receiving funding from the Australian Government. The TestLab will investigate protecting critical energy infrastructure through cyber security, and focus on power system analytics, energy management and microgrids, complementing UQ’s state-of-the-art renewable energy laboratory.

“The reality is that climate change is genuine and Australia is doing well in building capacity for sustainability, but we must maintain high standards,” Saha said.

“For businesses to invest the requisite money and attention in renewables – thereby making this a self-perpetuating concern – standards of research, technology and implementation need to be exceptional.

“Renewables are changing the world. Every place and every existing energy system has its own particularities but, day by day, we are learning more about each of these.”

Saha said UQ students are receiving “unbelievable benefit” from the vast number of renewable energy projects and facilities being undertaken.

While the area of research presents plenty of challenges, it presents even more opportunities.

“The truth is our graduates are highly sought after, and I can immediately think of one particular organisation in Queensland that has nine UQ PhD graduates from my own research working in the power and energy space,” Saha said.

“Our graduates are trained on operational facilities and are trained for real problems.

“Queensland has not commissioned a coal-fired power station since 2007 and, at some stage in the future, there will be a significant drop in the availability of fossil fuel-based electricity, which means more and more renewables will be in the system.

“UQ graduates are well positioned to lead us into the future on sustainable energy.”

As Queensland has the highest per-capita penetration of rooftop solar PV facilities in the world – with half-a-million households already enlisted to capture solar energy – clear societal and environmental factors make UQ an ideal place to study the topic.

Faculty of Engineering, Architecture and Information Technology Executive Dean Professor Vicki Chen said the booming renewables sector offers a clear demand.

“Each year we enrol around 1000 first-year engineering students. Industry placement is integral for them and the opportunities in renewables are vast,” Chen said.

“Many students have been fascinated to learn about UQ’s moves into renewables, including the Warwick Solar Farm. The Master of Sustainable Energy and Master of Renewable Energy students also see it as a privilege to see these renewable energy assets up close and work hands-on with our own data.”

An image of Professor Tapan Saha at the UQ Warwick Solar Farm.

Professor Tapan Saha at the UQ Warwick Solar Farm.

Professor Tapan Saha at the UQ Warwick Solar Farm.