Powering the factories of the future

As battery storage technology becomes more affordable, more companies are turning to renewable energy as a means of cutting down on energy costs. PACE talks to Total Construction’s James Bolton and Rob Blythman about what needs to be considered when transitioning to solar power.

With high power costs looking likely to remain a norm, Australian companies are looking for ways to lessen their reliance on the grid. Solar panels have long been touted as a means of achieving this. But delivery of reliable, cost-effective energy-supply via solar power for industrial operations has, until quite recently, been elusive for most companies.

Today, however, the falling price of battery storage technology is with ever-increasing rapidity enabling companies to harness renewable sources of energy such as the sun. Batteries can store solar-generated electricity during times of low demand or when conditions are unfavourable for solar power generation – when the sun is not shining, for instance – and then release that energy for use during times of peak demand.

Battery technology, that is, realises the promise of solar energy: a cheaper, more reliable, and importantly, more flexible source of power.

The falling cost of batteries means that adoption and usage in industrial sectors is expected to increase in the coming years. By fitting out plant with solar panels and battery storage units, businesses can achieve greater control over the solar energy that they generate themselves.

According to James Bolton, national manager, energy and infrastructure, a paradigm shift has been occurring over the last six months where solar panels have increasingly been in demand – not just from large companies, but businesses of all sizes.

“These days, it is not just the big end of town looking to build facilities with solar power generation. We are seeing more and more medium to smaller players specifying them in their tenders, if only as an option. They are asking builders and contractors to look at it and cost it in,” Bolton told PACE.

Rob Blythman, general manager, Engineering Construction Group, Total Construction, agreed. “The big end of town has always in the last 5-6 years been using solar panels as a PR exercise as opposed to a commercial reality. Now it has flipped into becoming a commercial reality, where the smaller- and medium-sized clients are thinking, ‘Hey, we can save a lot of our operations budget every year if we put solar panels and batteries in’. This is no longer a nice-to-have – it is coming a must-have.”

Bolton said that one of the major drivers of greater accessibility of affordable solar power solutions was the falling price of batteries. “Essentially, batteries are now where solar was two years ago. What that means is that the price of those batteries is going down so rapidly month to month that demand is rapidly increasing,” said Bolton.

“I’ve heard this referred to as the ‘Greenrush’. Batteries are really just the next phase of that – we’ve seen that happen with solar, and now batteries are the next big thing. Certainly, there is an appetite from both the residential and the industrial sectors to have these batteries, which make solar more attractive than ever before.”

Blythman said that the increasingly affordability of batteries eliminated one of the major hurdles to solar panel adoption in industrial settings.

“Every commercial operation needs certainty in their power supply. And to run off solar was seen as a big expense and not exactly reliable,” he said. “Once you introduce batteries, you can look at your numbers and be confident that you will be able to save x amount on your power every year, whether the sun is shining or not. Batteries help solar become a real commercially-viable option for energy needs.”

Bolton explained this as a shift towards “energy harvesting”: collecting energy, storing energy, and utilising it when it is needed.

“That is really what a battery gives you. You are collecting and you’re harvesting that energy, putting it into your own battery,” said Bolton.

“And you know at some point in time you’re going to use that energy whether it is between the hours of 5pm and 10pm, or whether it is between 7am and 10am the following morning. I think that that is a very appealing thing to industrial businesses.”

But to get the most out of solar power, those looking to invest in battery storage need to know what setup will suit the particular needs of their business before jumping headlong into joining the renewable energy revolution. There are ambiguities that need to be examined and clarified.

Not only does the number of panels required need to be assessed, but battery size requirements, too, need to be suited to a company’s operational requirements.

“With any new technology, there is a general tendency towards thinking that bigger is better. But, with batteries, you can actually buy them in small modules; you can get another one later on if you would like to,” Bolton said. “It is important to realise that it can be flexible – it doesn’t have to be all or nothing.”

Blythman concurred. It is usual, he said, for companies to think they need more than is necessary, or desirable, for their needs. “Everyone always thinks, ‘I need a really big battery’. But, actually, you don’t. You don’t need to spend a million dollars. There are options that will provide you effective storage that are much cheaper,” Blythman said.

“It is important you go to the right people, however. A manufacturer, for instance, can’t go to the local residential solar panel supplier and ask them what is needed – they will just fill the roof with solar panels and sell a battery for a million dollars. They won’t carry out the proper analytical work, which is what the clients really need.”

Blythman said that Total Construction provides precisely the kind of in-house expertise companies need to provide guidance to the client and to assess what needs to be done.

“We are about more than just building a building,” he said. “We’ve got to look at what their power consumption is – their average usage across a day, a week – and from there determine their requirements in terms of solar panels and batteries.”

Bolton said that there are areas that shouldn’t be overlooked when it comes to installing panels and batteries. The roof structure, for instance, must be able to take the load of the panels.

“The solar panels do have a weight, and if you put enough of those panels on your roof, it does have an impact on roof design, so you need to make sure the roof is strong enough,” he said.

“There are lightweight panels out there, but they are 20-30 per cent more expensive. If you were building a new building, you should make sure the roof structure can accommodate the panels. But if you have an existing building, depending on the roof, it might sometimes be cheaper to pay that extra 20-30 per cent more for lighter panels than retrofitting your roof to take the weight. That is one of the calculations we would make on their behalf, so they understand what the best option is.”

The design and structure of a battery room, too, has to be considered. “The room will potentially have to be a firebox, as lithium can be a fire hazard in certain circumstances. There are emerging Australian standards and there are some in place already. It is best to pre-empt further regulation by ensuring that the batteries are fireboxed, rather than wait and have to do it later.”

Blythman agreed. “You have got to build your factory to be adaptable for the next 10-15 years, and if you don’t you’ll end up spending a lot of money on retrofitting down the track. It is always cheaper to do it right at the beginning,” he said.

“They are a substantial investment. You want to protect those batteries from wear and tear so that you’re not replacing them every few years – that costs a lot.”

With the cost of battery coming down, it is likely that more companies will look to implement solar energy harvesting solutions to power their operations. However, Blythman warned, it is important that renewable energy solutions be included in designs from the get-go.

“If you have done all the design work without including the solar systems, you will have surprises down the track: it will cost for a lot to do the redesign work,” said Blythman.

“The earlier you start planning to have any sort of renewables in your building, the better, because you can really get your head around the additional costs and the savings.

“And that is what is important to us – taking the client from concept stage all the way to the finished building and providing the specialist expertise to back that up.”