SA Water large-scale solar and native revegetation need each other

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SA Water’s solar splash is not only continuing undaunted by the impacts of Covid-19, but, in planting almost one tonne of native grass and saltbush seed under thousands of solar panels across South Australia, the state-entity is also proving how solar energy can reap unexpected rewards – including important revegetation and local jobs. 

After South Australia’s largest water and sewerage service supplier announced in January that it was planning to invest more than $300 million in solar and energy storage in 2020, perhaps SA Water could’ve checked its ambitions when the Covid-19 pandemic reared its elongated neck. However, SA Water is proving that it can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same. 

Perhaps inspired by SA Water’s resilience, and indeed, the native resilience of indigenous vegetation, Succession Ecology has partnered with SA Water to revegetate low-growing grasses and saltbush species at five regional SA Water pump stations with ground-mounted solar installations. Locations include Port Pirie, Port Augusta, Whyalla and Peterborough. 

These sites were among the 35 SA Water facilities in the process of seeing 500,000 solar panels installed. The sum generational capacity of said panels is expected to be around 242 GWh. 

Succession Ecology Director and Revegetation Consultant Glenn Christie said that the beauty of these native varieties is their “ability to create a native biodiversity attracting insects and birds with the vegetation only reaching knee height as to not impact solar performance.” 

Actually, Christie is understating the virtues of these native varietals. As SA Water Vegetation Specialist Shaun Kennedy noted, the plantings provide a diverse native ground-cover beneath the solar array as a long-term strategy for weed and dust suppression while reducing heat build-up.

What is thus produced then, is a technological and ecological symbiosis. For airborne dust is the sworn enemy of a PV module as any foreign particle or substance on the glass face of a PV module impedes or restricts UV light absorption. These impediments are called “soiling”, essentially, shading. 

When pv magazine Australia spoke with Australian Solar Maintenance (ASM), a large-scale solar panel cleaning firm, last year, ASM said that solar yield losses attributable to soiling varies but can exceed 10% in some months, and particularly in dusty locations like Port Augusta. 

This is all to say that not only does large-scale solar on formerly agricultural land mean that native low-growing grasses and saltbushes can return, but that those very species help suppress impedimentary soiling on the PV modules. The circle of life. 

Moreover, in these difficult times, Christie said the project even allowed his company to employ a further four people through the seed collection process.