• Chris Haikings

WA on the Cusp of a Solar Energy Boom?

2018 has seen record levels of investment in renewable energy sector across Australia with the country currently experiencing a solar revolution. W.A’s largest solar farm - Emu Downs 20MW facility opened for business last month, the first of 12 large-scale solar farms funded under ARENA landmark solar program.

Its claim to largest PV installation in the state will, however be short-lived with plans for a 30MW installation at Byford by WestGen, a 120MW project near Merredin by Stellata Energy, and a 100MW project from Sun Brilliance expected to be operational within the next year.

With Western Power estimating more than 1,000MW of large scale wind and solar in the pipeline for WA, the state looks to be on track to meet its share of the national large scale renewable energy target by 2020.

As arrays expand in size (some sprawling more than 300 hectares), operators are increasingly looking to the emerging UAV industry to help commission, inspect and manage their assets. These enormous sites require routine maintenance and periodic checks to ensure they are operating at full capacity. In the past, this would have been carried out on foot, requiring boots on the ground to walk row upon row of panels to document findings and the only means of capturing aerial images were by manned flight.

Thanks to recent developments in drone technology spearheaded by companies such as DJI and their partnership with FLIR Systems, we now have thermal imaging sensors that are small and light enough to be carried on a commercial UAV, making aerial radiometric data much more accessible and affordable.

Radiometric mapping of solar installations is helping operators to detect:

• Module faults including individual hot spots on the cells, diode failures, shattered or dirty modules, coating and fogging issues, and junction box heating.

• String and system faults such as Wiring issues (reversed polarity, frayed cables), charge controller issues, and inverter and fuse failures.

• Racking and balance of system faults: These are major issues with how the modules are mounted.

A vital tool in the inspection of large sites, drones are also helping to identify and monitor major site issues, such as vegetation encroachment, drainage and soil erosion beneath panel racking.

Large defects, such as offline strings and reversed polarity can be rapidly identified, improving the efficiency of on site commissioning while detailed assessments highlighting cell sized faults help with evaluating warranty claims.

Incorporating drones as part of a long-term O&M strategy is helping operators to evaluate changes in their assets over time, plan and manage preventative maintenance, carry out targeted repairs and importantly - reduce unplanned down-time.

solar aerial drone inspection of solar farm in Northam
The Spectre UAV team at Carnegie Clean Energy's 10MW Northam Solar Farm