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Thinking

Why would a university build a utility-scale solar farm?

To achieve its goal — to offset 100 percent of its electricity through renewable energy — The University of Queensland has constructed a 64-megawatt solar farm in Warwick, Queensland.

The University of Queensland’s Warwick Solar Farm boasts more than 200 000 panels anticipated to generate around 160 000 megawatt hours of energy each year – enough to power an estimated 25 000 homes.

The project has allowed The University of Queensland to become the first university in the world to offset 100 percent of its electricity requirements from its own renewable energy assets.

The University of Queensland initially commissioned Aurecon to undertake a pre-feasibility study into what would be required to achieve this ambitious sustainability goal. Having established the feasibility of the concept, the partnership continued to co-create the Warwick Solar Farm solution, with Aurecon advising the university on the development purchase, design, and physical build.

Here is the story of how the project unfolded from idea to reality…

The opposable mind

The team still remember the long discussions about solar farms, the possibility of saying ‘no this is not a feasible idea’ and the move to a seemingly easier idea. But, there was an opportunity to dream big – to imagine a better tomorrow.

One of the drivers for The University of Queensland to consider increasing its usage of renewable energy was rising energy prices. Prices have far outstripped wages growth and economy-wide inflation – building pressure over a 10-year period.

CPI for electricity compared with other sectors and wage growth

Designing for resilient energy systems: Choices in future engineering

Source: Barnes, P and Greet, N. October 2019. 'Designing for resilient energy systems: Choices in future engineering'

The University of Queensland felt a lack of control as an energy consumer and saw that energy prices had doubled in less than five years. They were spending upwards of AUD20 million each year on energy, essentially making energy a significant part of their operating costs, making energy their core business, even though they are in the business of higher education and research.

In addition, the university’s student body was focused on sustainability and greenhouse gas emissions reduction. The university wanted its current and potential students to see it taking a strong stance on a low-carbon future.

The seed was planted that The University of Queensland’s own renewable electricity supply, from owning a solar farm, would tick a lot of boxes for them and show something to their students. The tiny planting of that seed began to grow into a viable project.

While being focused on realising The University of Queensland’s vision, from early concept through to construction, Aurecon had the responsibility for ensuring that the project was a meaningful investment in creating a self-sufficient sustainable energy future for the university.

Thought Leadership Series – Energy

In this video, Aurecon and The University of Queensland hosted a thought leadership event to help unpack the complexities they had to overcome to bring one of the partnership’s big ideas to life – The University of Queensland’s Warwick Solar Farm.

Watch the full video from the event.

Becoming an energy generator and consumer

The University of Queensland has chosen to become a ‘gensumer’ with the Warwick Solar Farm. What is a ‘gensumer’? It’s the phrase used to describe an entity that is both a large energy consumer as well as a large energy generator.

Why is it worth talking about? Manager of Energy and Sustainability at UQ, Andrew Wilson, proposes that Australia is going to start seeing more ‘gensumers’; organisations that will cease being just a bill-paying passive recipient of the energy market and start being in control of their own energy use, energy pricing, security and carbon risks. Wilson said that more and more businesses are likely to start looking at the opportunities to play on both sides of the energy ledger.

He recognises that there are several challenges to overcome on the ‘gensumer’ journey. Look at the severe heat conditions in Melbourne in January 2019. More than six hours of rolling blackouts occurred throughout the city, yet energy users on traditional retail energy plans still paid the same rate of energy as if it was a mild spring day.

There is no incentive in today’s market for the average business to adapt their energy usage to real-time market conditions and what the market needs. The future will be more variable renewable energy and less baseload generation. There needs to be support and encouragement for businesses to actively participate in the demand-side of the market by implementing initiatives and projects that reduce the average price they pay for energy.

Wilson highlighted that there are policy levers that can be pulled to drive behaviour towards a brave new world, but it requires big steps today to prepare for tomorrow.

Renewable energy solutions

Solar power technology has enormous potential. So too does wind, and even energy solutions in their infancy such as hydrogen. These renewable sources will form part of the energy strategies, whether in wide-scale applications or in domestic households.

The challenge will be retaining and maintaining the momentum of change in the sector. At times, it may seem like renewables are taking two steps forward and one step back. The newness of the industry can result in risks that go and mitigate it. It can quickly turn products into being unprofitable.

The sector will benefit from longer term policy frameworks from government on the direction on renewables projects, and this level of policy setting would help stabilise the sector if there was plenty of flexibility to allow innovation to thrive.

As the renewables sector matures and stabilises, it will be exciting to see how innovation in technology, design and construction evolves because there are great opportunities ahead for Australia.

For trailblazing projects like The University of Queensland’s Warwick Solar Farm, the data to be gained on the technology and operation will provide lessons learned to future investments.

The future as partnership

As a partnership, Aurecon and The University of Queensland are committed to energy-efficiency and sustainability and intend to build on their strengths through their generation of big ideas for Australian industries. As part of a defined creative partnership, Aurecon and The University of Queensland will be pushing themselves, and each other, to be bold and envision other big ideas, like Warwick Solar Farm, and bring them to fruition for the tomorrow of today.

Originality and innovation blossom from deep in the recesses of the mind, not because some people have the magical creative gene, but because they open themselves up to recognising and exploring the uncharted future.

Partnerships will be vital to the energy journey of big energy consumers as they’re a catalyst for embracing new ways of thinking, exploring different ideas, embracing innovation.

The drivers of competitive advantage are always evolving. Not long ago, “quality” was a fringe idea, and IT was just a cost centre. Now quality is embedded in daily action, and fluency with big data is mission critical. Energy is on a similar trajectory. What was once hidden deep in procurement is rising to take its place among the key levers of business success.


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About the Author

Paul Gleeson, Aurecon Board Sustainability Committee advisor and Managing Director, Energy, Resources & Water – Australia and New Zealand, helps organisations to be at the forefront of the transition to a low carbon future.

Paul’s experience helping clients through the energy transition, using a combination of digital solutions and design led innovation, is being translated to unlock similar benefits in resources and water, helping to create sustainable industries. He is also leveraging these learnings to help other industries prepare for the transition risks created by climate change and therefore get to a low carbon future faster.

He has worked on some of the most significant projects in the Australian energy market; advising on the successful acquisition of TransGrid, the development, design and delivery of Australia’s largest solar farms, and the ongoing implementation of the Government of South Australia Clean Energy Transition, which led to the installation of the world’s largest lithium-ion battery.

Paul is a Fellow of the Institution of Engineers Australia and a graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. He holds a Certificate in Design Led Innovation from Stanford University.

He is also a member of The University of Queensland’s Master of Sustainable Energy Advisory Board and continues to work closely in partnership with The University of Queensland to lead change for students and business.

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