Remote mining operations require plenty of electricity but are often nowhere near transmission. A reliance on diesel generation leaves them vulnerable to fuel price volatility and high transport costs, which can seriously dampen any plans for stability or growth.

Many mine sites across Australia would be ideally suited to reliance on solar PV for clean, cheap energy but building an array out in the middle of nowhere is expensive.

A new method of laying arrays of solar PV panels using a small team of workers and a forklift is drawing attention of mining executives.

The simple technology is the work of Sydney-based company 5B, which has demonstrated it at the Diggers and Dealers conference in Kalgoorlie and the NSW Mining Conference in the Hunter Valley.

“Mine operators are increasingly looking towards renewables to complement their existing energy sources and reduce the cost of electricity,” said 5B chief executive Chris McGrath. “It’s a sign of the maturity of the renewables industry that mining operations are increasingly including solar in their energy mix.”

The 5B system Maverick comes in 12kW concertinaed arrays that can be deployed in 10 minutes. The company says a 1MW project can be built by a team of six in just five-days.

The arrays are prefabricated in 5B’s Sydney factory, to minimise on-site installation requirements. The ground-mounted DC arrays consist of 30 or 40 modules and can be made with 60- or 72-cell panels. Modules are angled at 10 degrees for east-west orientation.

Each Maverick unit weighs about three tonnes. Thirty-module arrays are 5m by 16m; 40-module arrays measure 5m by 20m. The company has warranty coverage with Jinko and Hanwha for modules used in the Maverick units.

About 280kW of projects have been deployed since Maverick launched mid-year, with another 500kW committed and a “very healthy” pipeline, McGrath says.

On a megawatt scale, McGrath says the technology is approaching $1 a watt. “That’s always been out aspiration,” he says. “That’s the industry Holy Grail that we set out to conquer. That’s our mission.”

The idea came about as a quick and easy way to cut costs at large-scale solar farms, using a prefabricated solution that would bypass the requirement for

5B founders Chris McGrath (left) and Eden Tehan spotted the potential in foldaway solar solutions.

planting thousands of steel posts in the ground.

“During our first few prototype deployments we had to pack up at the end of the day and take them back to the workshop. We quickly realised it’s redeployable as well, which is a very powerful functionality to have in some project applications,” he says.

It’s up to the system owner or renter whether the systems are used short-term or long-term.

The company has leased a system on a short-term basis to RCR Tomlinson, which is building the 60MW Gannawarra solar farm in Victoria. Other owners take a more permanent view of the energy option, and have intend their systems to meet a 25-year-plus lifetime.

“In that case customers tend to appreciate the optionality for redeployment, just for freedom of land use in the future if circumstances change,” he says. Financiers love it too, he says, because the Mavericks may count as security when negotiating the terms of borrowing for a long-term project. Most 5B projects have been direct sales and some are leased from the company. “Whatever the project requires is what we work to.”

The company was founded by renewable energy engineers McGrath and Eden Tehan in 2013 and is headquartered in Sydney’s Marrickville with a 30MW production facility nearby in Alexandria. It is in discussions with contract manufacturers if it needs to scale up production. “That’s our growth strategy.”

The federal government awarding 5B with a $250,000 grant for commercialisation in 2017.

The system is also compatible with energy storage – enabling higher penetrations of solar into hybrid solar and fuel mini-grids and furthering energy cost savings.