As clean energy technology is rolled out across Australia to fill the energy void that will be left as coal-fired power stations are retired over the next 20 years the practitioners of PV are honing their skills. Plants that can deliver hundreds of megawatts are being delivered in a matter of months and developers are queueing to get projects approved. The solar industry is starting to run like a well-oiled machine.

Perth-based construction company Monford Group wound up 2019 with the completion of the 132MW Merredin Solar Farm – the largest in Western Australia – delivered without a hitch for its client Risen Energy in only three months. Such quick completion should give energy policymakers an idea of what’s possible when there is a clear focus on reaching targets.

That’s not to say it’s a cinch building a solar farm of 360,000 panels a few hundred kilometres inland from a state capital.

Monford had already completed the Yarranlea Solar Farm in Queensland for Risen Energy and “built quite a good relationship with them”, says general manager Ciaran Shannon. The group had missed out on the tender for the project but was asked to finish the job after Risen chose to replace the contractor it had employed. “It was behind schedule, so they brought us on board to assist and see if we could get it over the line for them,” Shannon says.

That was in October last year, with about 70-80% of the design complete and a substation in the process of being fabricated offsite. A Monford crew that had just finished Yarranlea, near Toowoomba in Queensland, was flown over the country and got to work. “There are not too many projects of this scale in Western Australia. On this project we were very fortunate in that over 70% of the crew we had on Yarranlea came across for us. We also have a labour pool in Western Australia of about 500-700 operatives, so it was easy to supplement the crew with some extras.”

The clock was ticking and extra workers were sourced locally to get Merredin Solar Farm back on track.

“If you fail to plan, you plan to fail,” says Monford Group general manager Ciaran Shannon.

Up she goes

The site, 460 hectares of farming and grazing land about 260km east of Perth, was fairly rocky. “A lot of the piling had to be pre-drilled, which added a bit more complexity and time to the overall project,” Shannon says. “But we still managed to get that done.”

Cable install routes were also reworked on Monford’s suggestion. “We have our own trenching machine, so we rationalised that to make the installation of cables a lot quicker,” he says. “That worked pretty well.”

The site was split into three areas, with three crews working on piling, frame construction and module installation. At the peak of the project about 460 workers were at work. “It was logistically quite tough, finding local accommodation and various things.”

Monford had installed tracking systems at Yarranlea and the Maryrorough Solar Farm, another Queensland project completed late last year for Gildemeister LSG Solar Australia. The group also built the 11MW solar farm within the 166MW Gullen Range Wind Farm in NSW.

Construction at Merredin was finished by mid-January, with testing of tracking, panels and cabling continuing to mid-March. By mid-June, when EcoGeneration spoke to Shannon, the project was in the “R2” testing phase, where its performance is compared with the original designer’s “R zero” model. “We make sure it is doing exactly as the designers intended.”

The site is on the doorstep of the 93MW Merredin gas plant, allowing convenient access to network infrastructure. “All the cabling and infrastructure from the Merredin feeds out to the Kalgoorlie area, so there’s quite a big draw out there on the mine sites.”

On to the next task

Monford is expecting to start work on more solar projects this year, delayed a few months by the covid-19 pandemic. Large plants are also on the cards for later in the year in South Australia and on the east coast. It is also looking at providing services to a wind plant and keeping an eye on the emerging hydrogen sector.

“Our core business is civil and infrastructure, so in the hydrogen space we’d essentially build plants except for the mechanical components, where we’d engage a specialist.”

Does Shannon have any tips for installers with ambitions to graduate to utility-scale? “It takes a lot of offsite work and planning and strategy discussion with the installation team before we commence on site,” he says. “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

Early engagement with the full team is recommended, and an understanding of the tracking technology on the market. “The Arctech Solar tracking system used in Merredin is very similar to what we installed at Yarranlea.”

Installers keen to move up to utility-scale will find no great difference with the technology they work with, but the scale of manpower can be a mountain to climb. “The only variance is being able to manage such a large work group. For us, coming from the civil and infrastructure space we have a lot of experience managing work crews of that size. Coming from residential or commercial [solar], that would be the biggest learning curve. Apart from that, the [PV] system itself is very similar.”

The project is in the final stages of commissioning and will start exporting into the grid in four stages – 20% capacity, 50%, 80% and 100% – on a timeline determined by network service provider Western Power.