Get to the chopper! How airlifting modules opens new solar frontiers


In July 2020, Epho Commercial Solar (Epho) completed the seemingly impossible task of lifting solar systems on to 12 separate roofs at Woolworths headquarters with restricted crane locations and requiring extensive public road closures and manual handling. How did they do it? Well, they did what any of us would do when we’re stuck in a bind – they called in a helicopter.

Woolworths was looking to further reduce its emissions by installing a 572 kW solar system atop its massive Norwest Support Office in Bella Vista. However, Epho Managing Director Oliver Hartley told pv magazine Australia that due to the uniquely complex factors of the project, “a cost benefit analysis was made and the helicopter scenario ended up being not only competitive but also enabled the whole system to be lifted to all 12 sub roofs (and various mechanical plant decks) within the space of eight hours.” Hartley estimated the same undertaking with cranes could’ve taken more than three days, and caused “extensive traffic management (and thus increase disruption to the public and staff).”

Woolworths is not shy of green practices of late. In June 2020, a Woolworths branch in Orange, NSW, made an Australian first when a 100 kW solar array was installed by Solgen Energy Group on its rooftop in the shape of the supermarket’s logo. Moreover, Woolworths was also the world’s first retailer to issue green bonds to fund the development of low-carbon supermarkets through measures such as the installation of solar systems like that at Orange.

Image: Epho Commercial Solar

Hartley and Epho now believe the use of small helicopters capable of carrying loads sub 700kg (i.e. a pallet of modules) will be used more regularly for complex installations like that of Woolworths Norwest Support Office. Without thinking outside the box, such complex installations may have been binned in the past, but now it has been shown that there is a viable option.

Of course, just because helicopters can be used, doesn’t mean they should be used excessively. After all, Aussie hero Eric Bana is too busy to be rescuing solar installers from Black Hawk Down situations every five minutes.

Airlifting modules, Hartley stressed, is reserved for special cases, if only because they bring their own raft of challenges, “for instance the buildings need to be entirely vacated which may not be easily achievable in some cases. For simple projects (single roof with suitable access), scissor lifts or mobile cranes are likely to remain the mainstream preferred installation methodology for solar projects.”

This said, helicopters are helpful. Installation time is drastically reduced, and because the equipment is lifted to exactly where it needs to be, manual handling is reduced and therefore worker safety increased.

The idea came to Epho’s development team from seeing helicopters being used to lift large air-conditioning units atop shopping centres. Financially the option made sense, a bonus because the helicopter option was really the only viable route. However, because no alternative was available, no detailed emissions budget analysis was done.

So while Epho cannot say whether eight hours of helicopter use produces more emissions than several days of cranes, pains, and automobiles, it can be said that helicopter use means more solar can be installed – the only effective emissions reduction in the long term.

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