You’re late out of work and haven’t thought about dinner. The bus will be here in a minute and you’re outside the supermarket. You rush in and stand before cabinets stacked with frozen food. As you reach for a family size supreme pizza, you hear a voice: “How much coal went into this?”

It won’t be listed on the box, but we all know coal supplies about 75% of the grid. How do you feel about that?

Well, great news for time-poor home cooks came in mid-July with the announcement McCain Foods Australia is building the country’s largest behind-the-meter clean energy system at its facility in Ballarat, Victoria, with 7MW of solar and a 1.2MW of waste-to-energy cogeneration.

The company expects the 8.2MW clean energy system will push down energy bills at the site by 39% and help it reach its targets of halving emissions by 2030 and having all of its plants powered by renewable electricity by 2030. The anaerobic digester is also expected to cut the site’s reliance on natural gas by 16%.

The 17,000-panel solar component will be split between a ground-mounted array with single-axis tracking and a 500kW system over the car park, which is something of a specialty for winning bidder Smart Commercial Solar, with car park projects already delivered for councils and at commercial sites around the country.

Grid-scale solar ‘pretty much over’

Smart Commercial Solar managing director Huon Hoogesteger says the McCain project shows rational thinking on the client’s behalf but also reflects the market’s response to the difficulty of connecting utility-scale solar.

“It’s effectively a phenomenon of oversupply which has been generated by a massive amount of interest in large-scale solar farms,” Hoogesteger tells EcoGeneration. “The daytime cost of energy has been falling thanks to the amount of renewables penetrating the grid, particularly in the middle of the day and especially on weekends when prices can go to zero or even negative.”

The age of grid-scale solar, he says, is “pretty much over” until storage, hydrogen and other technologies can create sufficient load in the middle of the day to match the output of PV. “If you can’t make any money out of your solar farm then there is no point in building it.”

A business’s energy costs include usage, network charges and tax, he points out, but a well-tailored behind-the-meter solution can deliver savings even if wholesale energy prices go to zero, “which is remarkable”.

The power purchase agreement agreed with McCain is competitive with wholesale market prices, Hoogesteger says. “Even without the energy component on your bill we’re able to come in cheaper – and that’s what it’s all about.”

A rendition of the planned solar “flyover” near the plant’s entrance.

The PPA incentive

A commercial and industrial solar project that is competitive against the retail cost of energy is not hampered by the same market forces that are squeezing very large projects that compete in the wholesale market.

PPA funding partner Solar Bay scores merit points from Hoogesteger for its “genuine and progressive” attitude to the project, he says, where many financiers are still struggling somewhat with the clean energy concept. He can’t comment on an estimated payback period but the return on investment is “far better than money in the bank”, he says.

“It’s a very good and solid return on investment,” he says, where fixed price payments are contracted over a fixed term, in this case 20 years. The system is owned by Solar Bay, with McCain taking ownership at the expiry of the PPA. Smart Commercial will operate the system.

A 100kW double-glass solar “architectural flyover” was included to satisfy the client’s request in the brief for something eye-catching at the plant’s entrance. Three EV chargers will also be installed.

Smart Commercial mostly installs rooftop systems but it has delivered some ground-mounted projects in the past, but this is its first time using tracking. For this job it will use trackers by Nclave, a Spanish maker bought by Trina Solar in 2018.

Hoogesteger reckons the project will light the way for other businesses to use PPAs as a way to buy their energy, with the certainty of term and price. “It shows that this is a sensible way of getting a significant proportion of your energy – in this case 40% – from renewable sources at no cost to the company and indeed a saving straight away.”

McCain Foods, a privately-owned Canadian firm with 51 facilities around the world including three in Australia, is committed to halving emissions by 2030, ceasing any reliance on coal by 2025 and having all its plants powered by renewable electricity by 2030.

The 1.2MW biodigester will be built by Optimal Group, a Melbourne-based energy solutions company. The digester will act as a smoothing device that can provide 24-hour power to cover part of the night-time load. The unit will be fed on all the stuff cast off at a facility that turns out a vast quantity of potato-based food, mostly chips but also hash browns, fries, etc. (The pizza analogy at the start was a lure, sorry.)