The tropical Northern Territory is dotted with diesel generators, and NC Electrical & Air Conditioning managing director Neill Carberry tells EcoGeneration he’s busy swapping them out for solar.
You got started out in renewables in your native Ireland, is that right?
I did, about 12 years ago. Solar’s actually quite efficient in Ireland, it works well there. I relocated to Australia nine years ago, to follow my love for renewables – more sun, better conditions, better market. I started NC Electrical and opened [installation outfit] Solar City about six years ago, originally focused on residential. It’s what we enjoyed doing and what we were used to. As the company grew, we branched into commercial PV and defence work. We do a lot of solar for defence and off-grid for defence. We also have a division in Melbourne.
Is lead-acid still popular in stand-alone systems in the Northern Territory?
I’m trying to push lithium – I’m a firm believer in lithium-ion technology – but you just can’t change the minds of some of these farmers who have been cut off from existence for 20-odd years. When you try to sell them a new product that isn’t something they know and are used to, it’s an impossible sale. Yes, lead-acid is still reasonably big. Lithium is gaining quite a lot of traction but lead-acid is still loved up there.
What are lead-acid’s good points?
Lead-acid is good for high energy, high inertia. If you need to get a lot of power to something really, really quickly, the lead-acid has that, whereas a lot of the lithium [batteries] don’t or are limited in their capacity. Farmers are not necessarily easy on their equipment.
What sort of load do these farmers have?
We’re doing one station at the moment with a 450kWh usage per day. You’re talking about pumps, machine shops, habitation facilities, the homestead – at any one time in a cattle station there could be 40 or 50 people there, with air-conditioning, refrigerator and TV in every single room. They’re quite big jobs.
What sort of solar systems do they have?
Not a lot, at the moment. It’s my job to convert them to solar. Primarily their focus has always been diesel. Ninety percent of cattle stations will get their power from diesel. We’ll go out and take a couple of the homesteads and a couple of the facilities off the grid, essentially, and show them it’s possible and there’s a good return on investment. It’s generally a scalable approach, where you do a bit at a time with an overall view of converting the whole project to a standalone off-grid system. It’s the same at the defence facilities, where we are converting them to solar and off diesel power. There are training facilities and communications towers in the middle of nowhere, with big diesel generators. We’re able to take away a lot of costs and put in a more robust system. They love it. One project at the moment includes 250kWh of storage, using PowerPlus lithium batteries.
How have you seen solar change people’s lives?
It gives them electricity reliability, which is something they haven’t really had before. Their experience of remote power has always been clunky, problematic, it drops in it drops out. We’re able to give them a reliable source of power at a really good price point. It’s easier on the machinery, it’s easier on the electronics. Ninety percent of the systems we can remotely program and control. It used to be the case if a system went down unless the person onsite was reasonably technical it was quite hard to get it going again, but now for 90% of the systems we can dial in and bring them back online for the client. Off-grid has changed quite a lot. It’s getting cheaper, it’s getting stronger, it’s getting better. A lot of people in Darwin are considering going off the grid because it’s a problem the Northern Territory has.
What’s wrong with the grid in Darwin?
It’s really old. There are some sites maybe 20km from the CBD where voltages on the lines are too high, so solar systems are turned off. They might have 9, 10kW solar systems which don’t work because the grid voltage is too high. They’re calling me up asking how do I fix that? We’re taking calls each week; people are interested in this. The uptake is quite slow but people are still interested [in going off the grid]. That fantasy of being free of the retailer is getting closer.
How do materials costs reflect your remoteness from the major cities?
Obviously we have to pay additional costs in the freight for panels, racking, balance of system – so the average for BoS might be an extra 5 cents [per watt] compared with down south. The average panel price is 5c [a watt] dearer. We are susceptible to a lot of market fluctuations, because we’re the last people to get it in the first place.
What else can make it a tough place to be in installer?
Doing solar in Darwin is harder than the majority of the states. We’ve got added restrictions and regulations from network retailers and operators. There are zero exports for systems over 7kva three-phase and 5kva single-phase. Commercial all zero export, and any systems over 200kva require battery smoothing and ramping or cloud protection. And because we’re building in cyclonic regions we’ve got additional engineering costs and requirements – it makes doing solar in the Territory a reasonably complex process.
And what about the wildlife up there?
No, not really a problem, although it’s always exciting when we’ve got to do an off-grid job and there’s a croc in the middle of the road. You see some pretty cool stuff out there. It’s not a bad job.
How about the most interesting system you’ve installed lately?
It’s amazing what you find in these remote locations. We did a job for a guy who lives in a boat in Lajamanu in the Tanami Desert. He’s got a pet crocodile. It was cheaper to buy a boat and deliver it to the middle of the desert than to build a house. He’s got about a 50kW ground-mounted PV system with about 200-odd kWh of storage. It’s a big metal boat in the middle of the desert, he’s got to keep it air-conditioned! You see some pretty cool stuff.
That’s a huge residential system…
One we’re doing now is a 100kW off-grid with about 350kWh of storage. That’s a massive system. We do a lot of the bigger off-grid than we do the smaller. The mums and dads take up 90% of our inquiries, but the 10% of inquiries that are the large-scale off-grid jobs are the ones that are really pulling the trigger.