Pre-assembled solar bridges energy gaps and challenges large-scale traditions

By Tom Kenning
Scatec’s solar-plus-storage system using prefabricated solar tracker structures from Cambridge Energy
Scatec’s solar-plus-storage system using prefabricated solar tracker structures from Cambridge Energy. Image: Scatec.

Cost and risk factors can make countries facing energy access issues the most difficult for developers to build solar projects, despite their huge potential. Tom Kenning reports on two plug-and-play solutions that may provide a solution in off-grid locations.

Most PV system contracts involve solar systems being in one location for 25 years, but a new model of leasing re-deployable solar PV systems could offer flexibility to off-grid applications where power is only needed for a few years, while countries with electricity access problems could use these systems to bridge emergency energy gaps.

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Not all geographies and markets suit the traditional large-scale PV model that is proliferating across the globe. Utilities in under-developed markets, for example in Sub-Saharan Africa and pockets of Asia and Latin America, are often not able to commit financially and strategically to longer contracts.

The solution may lie in prefabricated solar systems where the mounting structures and solar panels are assembled in an off-site factory with a design that allows for a quick and easy installation process on site, as well as redeployment further down the line.

Only a handful of companies are offering such solutions at present, but those approached by PV Tech Power believe these models will become mainstream and even dominate in a few years due to the flexibility, lower labour costs and ease of construction advantages of a modular and re-deployable solution.

This article looks at two different approaches to pre-assembled PV systems: firstly, the solar-plus-storage ‘Release’ solution from Norwegian clean energy firm Scatec, which includes a prefabricated solar tracker-based structure called ‘Nomad’ built by UK-based firm Cambridge Energy; and secondly, Australian firm 5B’s prefabricated and pre-wired modular 48-50kW fixed-tilt array known as ‘Maverick’ that focuses on energy density and high-speed deployment.

Scatec’s plug-and-play Release

Scatec’s Release solution involves financing and renting out plug-and-play solar systems on a shorter timeframe than the typical 25-year power purchase agreement (PPA). This makes solar available to off-takers who might not have the financial strength to make such long-term commitments and to those with temporary power needs such as a mine that may only need a decade of electricity.

Although Cambridge Energy’s ‘Nomad’ system provides the backbone of the Release solution, it is Scatec that takes the risk of funding, designing and installing the projects. It also adds an energy storage component to create integrated power plants that can perform energy-as-a-service (EaaS) tasks. The aim is to reduce the need for setting up complicated structures with thousands of workers onsite, while designing in the most efficient transport density and simplest installation basis to avoid as much as possible the use of cranes and machines.

Hans Olav Kvalvaag, CEO of Release by Scatec, tells PV Tech Power that the company was attracted to the tracker-based option primarily because the equipment has the flexibility to be easily and quickly dismantled and deployed elsewhere, but also since the trackers cater to its preferred bifacial modules.

Modular solution

Prefabricated solutions are easier and quicker to install than conventional solar structures, which use large amounts of concrete and require an EPC operation to perform piling when installing the structures on site. Not needing lots of workers, subcontractors and machinery is particularly advantageous for smaller-scale and off-grid installations where sourcing a large workforce can be difficult, says Kvalvaag.

“We believe strongly that prefabricated solutions will be an important step change in developing the smaller-scale projects and making it much simpler,” adds Kvalvaag. “We see some others that are trying to do the same and we believe that this will come more and more.”

Even the largest scale projects may eventually start to incorporate these pre-assembled solutions because the “beauty of solar” is its modularity where the same solutions can fit both large and small-scale projects, claims Kvalvaag.

However, the major PV module makers at present are too focused on tight margins and cost efficiency to put time into developing these pre-assembled solutions, Kvalvaag believes. The same goes for the tracking device giants such as NEXTracker, adds Kvalvaag, who for now are focused on delivering gigawatts of product.

Renting solar like renting a car

Scatec allows mines, big construction sites and other off-grid operations to rent the Release solution for, say, five years, and at the end of that period, the client may decide to increase or reduce the capacity as it expands or draws back on its operations.

This is facilitated by the modular flexibility of Release which comes in ~1MW blocks. The energy storage components can also be scaled up or down in a similar way. While traditional IPPs engage in standard PPAs involving lenders and multiple financing parties, in this case, Scatec funds and rents out the project.

“It’s like renting a car,” says Kvalvaag. “You call us and say you want to extend, then we do that. That’s the flexibility we want to offer.”

African utilities

Scatec has a wealth of experience in building utility-scale solar in Sub-Saharan Africa and with Release it plans to target both African utilities and mining operations for two different reasons. Mining operation lifetimes may be far shorter than 25 years and need flexibility on capacity, while African utilities lack institutional capacity and capabilities to sign up to an IPP solution for 25 years.

“They don’t have the balance sheet, the financial strength, or the ability to give the sovereign guarantees required,” adds Kvalvaag – noting that the pre-assembled Release system, which is comparatively more expensive due to its shorter timeframes, allows for a game-changing level of flexibility.

For this reason, Release has attracted finance from the World Bank Group investment arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), along with Climate Fund Managers, a Netherland-based fund manager specialising in climate-focused finance. “What we all want to offer is affordable and reliable power and to reduce and replace the diesel and fuel consumption that we see across Africa,” says Kvalvaag.

Release put through its paces in Cameroon

Scatec has recently demonstrated the problem-solving ability of its prefabricated Release system by deploying 36MW of its solar tracker structures on a short-term lease to Cameroon’s national electric utility ENEO. The African nation’s energy system had suffered from a severe drop in water levels at the 72MW Lagdo dam, one of its critical power sources. The Release systems were connected to Cameroon’s Northern Interconnected Network grid, which suffers frequent outages, but as a flexible renewable energy solution, the Release system is claimed to able to bridge this energy gap by both augmenting the power supply from the dam and ensuring continuous electricity.

Scatec’s Release system installed in Cameroon to bridge electricity shortfalls
Scatec’s Release system installed in Cameroon to bridge electricity shortfalls. Image: Scatec

Several African countries use contracted diesel generation for emergency power, which not only has high environmental impacts but also has significant cashflow repercussions for the governments, says Sarvesh Suri, IFC’s regional industry director, infrastructure and natural resources, Africa. Such states then become entirely susceptible to the high charges inflicted by emergency diesel power providers, when diesel costs are already on the higher end. Instead, the Release system can deliver power rapidly on an emergency basis with these short-term lease agreements and Suri says some of the tariffs agreed on the leases with Scatec are similar to what an IPP would be signing for to on a 20-year PPA, so the country in question also benefits.

“They are assuming that after five years the product would be so good that the countries will continue to renew the leases,” says Suri. “In the case they can’t, they can rapidly take the assets and deploy them in another situation. That allows them to amortise the lease payment over a longer period than just the term of the lease and still keep the cost competitive.”

The Release system can be installed at a rate of 1-2MW per week with 10-15 labourers and Kvalvaag says having fewer workers and a prefabricated system allows for much better control of a project, which then helps to address security issues. For example, Scatec is starting to work on projects in less secure and challenging markets such as Chad and Liberia, where it is also hard to find external EPCs to build projects.

‘Democratising access to solar’

At scale, prefabricated solar solutions have a total capex that is 20-30% cheaper than traditional solar, claims Tom Miller, CEO of Cambridge Energy, which produces the Nomad system. On one hand, he likens the re-deployable PV Release model to turning real estate into a car fleet. On the other, he compares it to Lego given its high level of modular flexibility. This gives the product unique suitability for installation in challenging, remote geographies that traditional players tend to avoid.

“Most people are scared of these types of projects often in locations where there’s a lot of excess risk because of sovereign risk,” says Miller.

Cambridge Energy started by deliberately targeting the hardest places to install projects so that scaling from that point onwards would naturally be far easier. Nomad systems are already deployed in the Atacama Desert in Argentina, the Yukon in Canada, Norway and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Nomad decreases many traditional barriers to installation such as sourcing bottlenecks, transport, and risk mitigation. Miller claims this makes solar power available to many more players rather than just concentrated in the hands of a few large companies that deploy at mega-scale on the grids, a process which he describes as “democratising access to solar”.

“The applications are endless if it’s 30kW or more: water pumping, mines, processing, hospitals,” he adds. Mines, for example, can easily offset their expensive diesel costs while not having to operate the energy system themselves.

World Bank’s first risk mitigation facility

Both the IFC and Climate Fund Managers have financed the growth ambitions of Release. IFC was attracted by the innovative contracting arrangements on this flexible PV solution and Sarvesh Suri says it can reduce the time of concept to delivery of a project from 3-5 years to 9-15 months. Furthermore, Release has been deployed “in some of the most remote and fragile environments in Africa and all over the world.”

IFC provided capital alongside blending the use of concessional funds from its sister agency IDA Private Sector Window to provide a package that reduces the risk for investors but also allows projects of this innovative nature to go forward. This was the first time the World Bank Group’s board approved what it calls a risk mitigation facility, which is a liquidity facility on the balance sheet of IDA.

There’s no reason why these prefabricated models can’t proliferate into the mainstream solar landscape both in the off-grid and large-scale sectors, adds Suri. The reduction in cost of solar cells over the last decade has made distributed energy a key part of the energy access story in Africa and this is why the IFC has started to focus heavily on distributed generation. Coupled with the reduced costs of smart and remote metering and monitoring solutions, it has become far more scalable.

Having more flexibility in the financing helps to decrease financing costs and therefore to offer cheaper power, says Miller.

“In Africa, more than 60% of the PPA price is determined by the cost of capital, which is effectively a function of risk,” he adds. “So, if you can decrease risk alone, you’re doing more for helping the power price than you are by optimising for a cent per watt here and there on the structure. This is the one area that’s poorly understood, and that Scatec understands very well.

“This flexibility and leasing in Africa and remote [areas] is incredibly valuable because it’s about bringing sophisticated developed-world financing and putting it into places where traditionally you could never consult.”

Maverick energy density

Australian firm 5B has a prefabricated plug-and-play 50kW array, called ‘Maverick’, which is assembled in an off-site factory, shipped efficiently in containers to site and then both rapidly and labour-efficiently rolled out on solar sites with capacities ranging from hundreds of kilowatts up to hundreds of megawatts.

The 50kW arrays – made up of 90 standard solar modules – are folded up for transport then unfolded down to a 10-degree tilt in either direction, notionally with an East-West orientation, explains Simeon Baker-Finch, CTO, 5B. The firm has assembly locations in Australia and Vietnam, with a third location soon to be revealed, and its Maverick systems have been deployed in Australia, Latin America, Chile, and Panama.

A key difference is that the 5B Maverick system is ground-mount while Cambridge Energy’s Nomad uses trackers, but both systems enjoy similar benefits of prefabrication.

For example, the Maverick has the benefits of controlling safety and quality in a factory and Baker-Finch claims it is three times more labour efficient and significantly faster to deploy than standard structures. Energy density, however, is one of the main advantages of the Maverick and Baker-Finch claims it can generate roughly twice as much energy per unit area of land compared to single-axis trackers, which are typically more spread out.

“It’s a trade off,” adds Baker-Finch. “The Maverick chooses to optimise for land efficiency as opposed to module efficiency.”

The energy density approach makes sense as modules become less and less expensive particularly in terms of optimising use of space, says Baker-Finch, whereas Miller highlights the importance of resource efficiency and the benefits of squeezing the most out of every single module rather than the land. Nonetheless, Baker-Finch believes the energy density route will become increasingly common in applications involving co-location with industrial loads, like hydrogen electrolysers or in the production of green steel.

The 5B Maverick being unfolded in semi-autonomous deployment in Atacama, Chile
The 5B Maverick being unfolded in semi-autonomous deployment in Atacama, Chile. Image: 5B.

Again, the Maverick is very easy to pick up and deploy elsewhere. For example, there were plans for half of a large site in Panama to be redeveloped in two years, with the other half remaining in situ. So 5B deployed a large solar array and then moved the second half onto a cleared area of the site later on. Baker-Finch says this reduces the stranded asset risk for a financier of an energy access project that has less certainty about consistent revenue. Furthermore, if miners were to become interested in the land beneath a solar array, this flexibility at least gives the option to relocate.

The Maverick is also aerodynamic and set low to the ground giving it a wind resilience that makes it suitable for Cyclonic zones such as the Gulf Coast of the US, Florida, and parts of Northern Australia. Its shallow ground penetration and function without cable trenching also make it suitable in areas with difficult terrain such as landfills, waste facilities, reclaimed land, tailings dams, rock dumps and mines.

Ultimately at a time where the PV industry is facing labour shortages, pre-assembled PV systems’ ability to significantly reduce workforce numbers must be turning heads in all scales of solar, while the distributed generation sector could be boosted by these novel deployment, scaling and financing flexibilities.

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