In the dust of the drought-declared southern Darling Downs, a renewable energy project has emerged this year to become a tangible example of climate action.
Five kilometres outside of Warwick, a solar farm is taking shape that will make UQ the world’s first major university to produce 100 per cent of its power needs from its own renewable energy.
The solar farm will generate as much or more electricity each year than the University needs. This commitment to sustainability has resulted in a coveted Australasian Green Gown Award in the inaugural 2030 Climate Action category.
Construction started in April this year, but planning commenced well before this, with UQ’s Sustainability and Energy team taking some time to identify the right location to meet a range of essential technical criteria, such as proximity to a suitable substation, geotechnical conditions and limited remnant vegetation.
Importantly for UQ’s teaching, research, and engagement objectives, the 154-hectare Warwick site is located near the services and amenities of a major regional centre and to UQ campuses.
For UQ Provost Aidan Byrne, it is important that universities show leadership in sustainability.
“We’re at a moment in history when the decisions we make, in my view, will determine the future wellbeing of humanity, and we must stop saying that individual action will not make a difference,” Professor Byrne says.
“Society is largely built on the cumulative effect of small acts.
“When it comes to climate change, we all share the responsibility and the consequences, and so we all need to make sure that we are doing our bit.”
Designed and constructed by Lendlease, UQ’s solar farm will generate around 160,000 megawatts of clean energy in its first year. This displaces carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to taking almost 50,000 cars off the road for a year or avoiding burning more than 20,000 tonnes of coal.
UQ Energy and Sustainability Manager Andrew Wilson says the installation of panels at the solar farm project have recently been completed.
“With the addition of 200,000 solar panels at Warwick, the University now has about 252,000 solar panels with 70.3 megawatts of capacity, and we remain on track to commence power generation in the first quarter of 2020,” he says.
"Work on site is now focused on connecting everything together, to be followed by testing and commissioning of all parts of the system.”
The first Power Conversion Units (PCU) arrived from Spain in September. The 16 PCUs each house three inverters that convert the power from direct current (DC) (from the solar panels) to alternating current (AC). The PCU then sends the power to the switchyard and into the local grid.
An initiative of the Australasian Campuses Towards Sustainability (ACTS), the Green Gown Awards recognise excellence in sustainability within the tertiary education sector in Australasia. The 2030 Climate Action category was introduced this year because carbon reduction and adaptation to the effects of climate change are essential for institutional resilience and business continuity. Judges looked for real innovation and progress to meet 2030 targets such as those set by The Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goal 13 – Climate Action.
“Institutions have to be taking bold steps to meet these targets,” Professor Byrne says.
“For the University, the solar farm is not just an economic choice – we’re doing it because our commitment to sustainability means that we are seeking to build on our research capabilities in renewables.
“We’re thinking deeply about how to overcome the barriers that might slow the switch from a fossil fuel-dominated energy system, including in developing countries such as China and India.
“We must all start acting, with collaboration in mind, informed by research, with an international spirit of generosity.”
When completed, the Warwick Solar Farm will support a wide range of current and emerging research and industry partnerships across a broad array of disciplines. Many of these will be led by the dedicated UQ Solar research group within the Faculty of Engineering, Architecture & Information Technology.
Potential areas of research include the use of cloud cameras to predict solar farm output, and integration of behind-the-meter demand response with in-front-of-meter large scale generation.
The generation profile of the solar farm will provide an opportunity to pilot emerging battery energy storage or hydrogen conversion technologies. It also opens the possibility of working with pumped hydro or similar technologies for the ‘time shifting’ of energy on a large scale. These concepts are especially exciting from the perspective of developing collaborations with industry partners who wish to pilot and prove innovative new energy solutions.
Research opportunities will also extend beyond the engineering disciplines. The project is likely to become a case study to examine the economic benefits of renewable energy developments to regional Australia, and how they can be maximised in future projects.
Follow all the construction updates here.
The Green Gown Finalist video about the Warwick Solar Farm can be viewed below.