The Northern Territory is a great holiday destination, with its palaeoproterozoic complex and grinning reptile life, but it’s a rough place to install solar. EcoGeneration fired off a few questions to Solar SETuP senior project manager Andrew Gray about working in the outback and the extra rigour that needs to be designed into systems that will be largely left to themselves to manage harsh conditions.

Senior project manager Andrew Gray relied on the best international technology and the best local enterprises to get the job done on time. Photo: Shaana McNaught.

Where did you find workers for the projects?

Power and Water had a team to administer the SETuP program. We made use of contractors for both the first and second tranche. Contracts were structured to ensure opportunities for local enterprises and to support Aboriginal employment opportunities. Work teams included existing Northern Territory-based contractors, remote community members and interstate businesses, where necessary. We encouraged contractors to make good use of existing shops and other services providers in the communities to support local enterprises.

How are suppliers providing maintenance services in these remote places?

A key goal of the program is to build appropriate long-life assets to minimise maintenance needs. Our existing essential services officers – locally-based contractors who undertake day-to-day operations and maintenance on essential service infrastructure – are now also keeping an eye on the arrays and compounds, and attending to weed control. Our existing electrical contractors are able to provide the specialist repairs and maintenance skills required on occasion.

How are the sites equipped for minimum O&M?

Design for whole-of-life value was a key goal. We paid special attention to using appropriate materials such as aluminium frames and stainless steel cabinets. The sites use natural ground covers with selective spraying of trees and weeds. The intent is for the natural ground covers to stabilise the soil and keep dust to a minimum.

Where did the workers sleep?

Accommodation for visiting construction workers is an issue in remote communities where housing shortages are a constant problem. Power and Water maintain some accommodation for visiting workers, which workers sometimes utilised. Other options included local council and government accommodation quarters and commercial operations, where available.

Did you have any problem disposing of packaging and all the rubbish that needs to get thrown out?

Waste disposal is also a challenge in remote communities. Local waste centres and local waste contractors were used where possible. Some reusable packaging items such as wooden pallets and materials such as wood chips created during land clearing operations were offered to the community for their use.

Did you have any problems with wildlife?

We had no reported incidents. Our rigorous safety systems help us prepare for hazards such as mosquitoes, dogs, crocodiles, buffalos and feral animals wandering on remote roads, including camels, donkeys, cattle and emus. We did have a very friendly and well-fed pig at Finke community, who was very keen to enter the Power and Water donga. Our people had to ensure the door was shut and no food was lying around – or they had to spend the night with an unwelcome guest.

How do you monitor the sites?

The sites have satellite or fibre uplinks to our central SCADA systems allowing real-time monitoring and control. Data is logged into our central repository, allowing for performance reporting. Although the solar sites are essentially unmanned, the essential services officers in each community visit the sites at least weekly to conduct inspections and ensure things like security fencing and fire breaks are in good order.

Does the climate push the limits of some of the equipment installed?

Heat and humidity are a huge challenge in the Northern Territory. Responses to the extremes include sun baffles and water egress design features on switchboards, ruggedized equipment being specified, and inverters positioned in the shade to provide UV protection.

What was the toughest thing about installing the massive battery at Daly River?

For ease of transport, the 15 tonnes of battery modules were shipped separately and had to be loaded by hand into the container. This was carefully managed with a safe work method and team approach.

What are maximum and minimum ambient temperatures?

Temperatures range from -5C to more than 45°C in the desert environments; the tropics can provide sustained conditions of above 34C with 80% humidity and little overnight relief.

Have foreign governments been in touch to ask about this project?

The program has drawn interest from utilities around Australia and site visits have included engineers from The Philippines.