Solar makes sense for businesses that operate from sunup to sundown, seven days a week, but the clean (and cheap) energy solution has been slower to catch on with owners of commercial and industrial operations than it has with households. As more systems are attached to warehouses and workplaces, however, the word is spreading. It helps when a large business client is switched on to the potential in solar and has a long-term view about working with an installation company.

Epho Commercial Solar’s work for the Aldi chain of supermarkets is an example of a corporate nudge towards sustainability begun five or so years ago which has since turned into an energised partnership. In August, the installer announced it had completed 100 new systems at Aldi sites over 100 business days, which takes the retailer’s tally of outlets with PV to more than 200.

“What they’ve shown is that the question shouldn’t be why solar should go on a commercial or industrial roof, the question should be why not,” says Epho managing director Oliver Hartley. “There really is no reason any more not to have solar on any of those buildings.”

Aldi stores around Australia are generally quite similar in size and layout, and after looking at so many locations Epho deduced a 100kW PV system is almost a standard fit. “The coincidence with Aldi is that a 100kW solar system is what they basically need to offset their daytime demand, and 100kW is also what generally fits onto an Aldi store, and in terms of the STCs 100kW is a good size as well,” Hartley says. “It’s just a really good match.”

Good match

It makes a big difference to work with a company that approaches the rollout of PV across its properties – owned and leased – as a partnership with one supplier, he says, although Aldi started out on its solar journey by employing a few different installation companies attracted via tenders.

“On the back of [being chosen as sole supplier] we could really go at this differently than we normally do,” Hartley says. “We sat down and applied a more industrial thinking around it. Aldi was the first [client] that literally put their whole portfolio together and worked with someone like us, to make it happen. That’s really exciting.”

An Aldi supermarket has the perfect load profile for a 100kW PV array, says Epho head of operations Luke Butterworth. “The systems export next to nothing and provide such a high percentage of their daytime consumption, it’s incredible.”

As the sun comes up, workers are packing shelves and working the fridges. Energy use creeps up steadily to plateau through most of the day to then taper off towards nightfall. “It almost looks like a solar generation curve. The 100kW mark is a beautiful balance between export and consumption.”

For an installer, a generally uniform layout and load means system design can be streamlined.

“That’s really the key to delivering 100 stores in 100 business days,” says Butterworth. “The way we manage that is critical. It’s a standardised set of inverters, standardised modules, same monitoring, same switchboards, same cabling, same DC isolators, same communications system. You try to make that as lean a process as possible.”

Rig rundown

Epho’s first job for the retailer utilised Enphase panels with microinverters to compensate for a shading issue. Later jobs saw ABB string inverters used before a switch to Huawei, “which have proven to be very good inverters,” Butterworth says. Modules have mainly consisted of Trina DuoMax glass-on-glass with Q Cells modules chosen for sites with higher cyclone risk.

It makes a big difference to choose suppliers for proximity to projects, he says, in case of setbacks and problems with transport. And buying in volume offers a great advantage, where suppliers are grateful to lock in orders.

The systems include solar monitoring by Meteocontrol, a German product originally designed for utility-scale PV in Europe. Aldi analyses its own energy generation and consumption. “They are very forward-thinking in that space,” Butterworth says.

Epho has so far completed 24MW of PV projects for the German retailer, about 75,000 panels, starting with a store in Tweed Heads, NSW, and a six-star green star site in Scoresby, Victoria. The installer has also designed, constructed and now operates urban solar power stations on Aldi’s distribution centres in Regency Park, South Australia (650kW), Brendale, Queensland (1MW), and Derrimut (1.4MW) and Dandenong, Victoria (1.5MW).

“That’s where you can get to in terms of efficiency if you really look at this as a program rather than individual projects,” Hartley says. “Because we’ve worked with Aldi for so many years already everything just runs so much more smoothly than with a lot of other programs. Over the years Aldi and Epho learned what suits Aldi best.”

Hartley says there is “tens of gigawatts” of potential for C&I solar around Australia. “We would love to see this potential utilised.”

Solar in our cities

Solar around Australia is entering a difficult patch, as transmission is talked about to link far-away utility-scale plants with metropolitan load and networks grumble about ever-rising exports from residential systems. The mostly naked rooftops of commercial and industrial zones in the major cities are screaming out to be plastered with PV.

Hartley says Aldi’s attitude towards a clean energy rollout shows the way for solar in cities to solve everyone’s energy problems.

“This is much faster than you could build a utility-scale solar farm, if you think about approvals, environmental impact statement, community consultation, network approval,” he says. “With commercial and industrial you can deploy solar much more quickly where it is needed, in urban areas, and get the benefits quicker with zero environmental impact.”

The commitment to solar is part of Aldi’s pledged to source all its electricity from renewable resources by the end of next year. The company has signed wind offtake deals with the Collector Wind Farm in NSW and Dundonnell Wind Farm in Victoria and cut emissions by 40% from a 2012 benchmark.