The power of mass production and the ruthless pursuit of cost reductions is the foundation on which the competitive solar industry has been built. But that applies to the components, modules, inverters, and, increasingly, batteries that are the building blocks of modern arrays. When it comes to the PV power plant itself, the prefabrication of an array’s composite parts, by contrast, is rarely seen.
“I stared at the module and cell side of things for so long, and saw that every element that could be sweated out of it was, so I was looking at it and thinking, ‘well, there’s not much left there,’” says Nicole Kuepper-Russell, the chief strategy officer for Australian mounting system provider 5B. “The deployment side of things historically was not such a big deal, even though it was such a major component.” And this is precisely where 5B is looking to innovate, through tapping the quality, speed, and cost advantages presented by prefabrication.
Kuepper-Russell herself has recently returned to PV. Having completed a PhD in PV device physics at UNSW in 2011, she saw the pitfalls of a career on the “solar coaster.” Avoiding that rocky road, she instead turned her hand to management consulting at Bain & Company. Having seen the potential of innovating on the mounting structure, rather than cell or module, she’s now teaming up with former classmates and giving solar a second shot.
The company was founded in 2014 by fellow UNSW graduates Chris McGrath and Eden Tehan. They now serve as CEO and chief ecosystem officer, respectively. The company has a limited track record to date, having deployed some 30 MW of its Maverick mounting systems. The system involves pre-assembled monofacial modules in an east-west array orientation with pre-wired DC cabling. The approach allows for rapid deployment, low onsite labor costs, and relocatability – three value propositions McGrath says delivers a number of compelling opportunities for the company. The “pristine” factory environment for assembly, as both McGrath and Kuepper-Russell observe, offers additional quality advantages when compared to the vagaries of assembly in the field.
Prefabrication has a mixed history in the construction industry, with advantages on cost and speed trading off against higher transport costs and difficulties in adapting structures to specific site conditions. In solar, the prefabrication of installation components is not entirely new, with U.S. manufacturers and developers SunPower and First Solar having introduced a level of prefabrication in arrays last decade.
“In the past, you were often making a playoff between shipping efficiency and labor efficiency with a lot of prefab approaches, in general not just in solar,” explains McGrath, whose background was in solar project development before founding 5B. “Generally, this means moving from a high labor cost environment to a lower one but incurring higher shipping and material costs. But we have tackled … those things simultaneously with an east-west topology.”
McGrath says that the startup can now achieve a shipping density comparable to conventional modules and racking structures that are then assembled on the project site. “We don’t have the same downside, and the upside is growing as well.”
In terms of deployment, 5B reports that it recently supplied a 1 MW project in Australia, under short-term financing, that it was able to deploy onsite in under two weeks – right through to DC cabling and AC output of the inverters. “We are providing a solar farm in-a-box solution [to the project],” says McGrath. But the company’s ambitions far exceed re-deployable prefab PV, despite there being ample opportunities in the sub-segment such as offgrid mining operations (see pp. 34-37).
Series A round
To enable 5B to pursue larger and more international projects, 5B took on U.S.-based project developer AES as a strategic investor, closing its Series A round in July. AES joined 5B’s AUD 12 million ($8.8 million) A Series round alongside Sydney-based venture capital firm Artesian, with Artesian taking a stake through a fund backed by Australia’s green bank, Clean Energy Finance Corp.
“5B’s innovative design produces twice the energy for any given area,” said Andrés Gluski, president and CEO of AES in a statement at the time of the investment. “In addition, a project using 5B’s technology can be built in a third of the time when compared with conventional solar.”
AES, which is a Fortune 500-listed company, has some pedigree in backing renewable innovators, having co-founded storage developer Fluence, in partnership with Siemens, in 2017. It owns and manages some $34 billion in power generation and distribution assets.
“We did find in our A Series very valuable and aligned investors, both in the Australian VC investors in Artesian, that we absolutely love working with … and on the other end of the spectrum, AES,” explains McGrath. “AES is very deeply rooted in a specific industry, and both have seen the power in what we are doing not just in the tech level but also in the business model and growth potential of that.”
5B’s ambitions for growth far exceed its tens-of-megawatts track record to date. McGrath speaks confidently about hundreds of megawatts and even gigawatts of opportunity for its Maverick system. Its 30 MW of projects number some 47 installations, across very different climatic and site conditions, including cyclone-prone areas. The largest project 5B has supplied to date, a 12 MW behind-the-meter array in South Australia, is now under construction. Company co-founder Eden Tehan is currently on site in Central America, overseeing its largest deployment beyond its home base – a 2 MW project in Panama. Construction began at the Panama site in October and is expected to be completed in January.
The speedy deployment of 5B’s Maverick comes by virtue of its prefabrication. Metrics 5B uses to illustrate this advantage is that a team of three people, using one forklift, can deploy 1 MW a week. This amounts to an 80% reduction in labor and three-times faster end-to-end installation compared to a comparable project in Australia, the company claims.
A Maverick PV array arrives on site in blocks, or cartridges, each loaded with either 40 or 90 pre-installed modules, including completed DC cabling. Each east-west A-frame row comprises two in-portrait modules, connected via a hinge and anchored by a concrete ballast – which is coupled to ground anchors at both ends of the row. Forgoing ground screw or posts, the ballast and anchors are designed to prevent wind-related disruption such as uplift or sliding. Assembly on site is carried out via the forklift, unfurling the Maverick block, concertina style.
By way of demonstrating the resulting installation speed, 5B points to its 2.1 MW project supplied to Australian utility AGL in Port Bonython, South Australia, that could be installed by the three-person crew in 21 days.
“It’s an interesting approach,” remarks Cormac Gilligan, an associate director of solar and energy storage for IHS Markit. Gilligan notes that the speed and simplicity of installation delivered by the prefabricated approach, along with the high energy density, make the Maverick particularly attractive for installations in remote locations. “It looks to be a great choice for landfill, mining sites or for customers that require solar to be redeployed,” says the IHS analyst.
However, Gilligan, who leads IHS Markit’s solar BoS and power electronics research, does caution that the 5B system may not be well suited to sites with undulating ground. He adds that “module frame limitations at present” may cause challenges when integrating larger format modules into the Maverick structure.
While simplicity and preassembly deliver speed and agility, robustness will be essential for the 5B solution to grow beyond its current market niche. Gilligan ponders when the system will be approved for higher wind tolerances and what kind of warranties are issued for the product – “this would be important.”
Thorsten Kray, from the I.F.I. Institute for Industrial Aerodynamics, has been an outspoken member of the PV community in recent years, particularly as wind events have damaged some single-axis tracking arrays. He says that the east-west orientation delivers significant advantages in terms of wind resilience; however, a larger ridge gap than the Maverick currently allows could deliver enhanced wind venting and the release of uplift pressure. He adds that the uniform size and weight of the concrete ballast throughout the array is not optimised from an aerodynamics and cost perspective.
“This is generally a point that I always criticise, having a fixed amount of ballast underneath the whole array. There is a great deal of variation of the wind loading from the corners to the interior and it can’t be reduced to one variable,” says Kray. “Either way, you will have too much [ballast] on the interior or there will not be enough, and it will not be safe, at the edges or corners.”
5B’s McGrath acknowledges that further refinement of the Maverick is underway and that a new generation is planned for release in 2021. The initial Maverick, he explains, was designed with an “over-engineered and conservative” approach. By contrast, these later iterations are intended to deliver lower costs, including unballasted systems, for “really large, permanent projects.”
In terms of scale, few come bigger than the Sun Cable project currently proposed for the Northern Territory region in Australia. The hugely ambitious vision is for a 10 GW solar array, coupled with an equally massive battery system, to supply electricity via a 7,750km undersea high-voltage power cable to Singapore.
In September 2019, 5B was selected as a preferred technology on the AUD 20 billion project, which has attracted some high-profile and homegrown billionaire supporters in Australia. The project is slated for 2023, and some remote sites, former cattle stations, have been selected. For 5B, if it can execute from 30 MW to gigawatt-scale in a handful of years, it would be a remarkable development. But Sun Cable itself is far from a sure thing.
“Sun Cable’s challenges and risk profile seems closer to a large scale infrastructure project, such as an LNG facility or gas pipeline, than a utility PV asset,” says David Dixon, a senior analyst, renewables research at Rystad Energy. “There’s technical risk with regard to the subsea cable and geopolitical risk,” he continues. “And then there’s the obvious question of economics, what will be the strike price of the PPA and how competitive is that with other sources of generation. I’m not trying to say the chances are zero, but there are clearly a lot of bridges to cross before financial close.”
The 5B team speaks of the adoption of prefabrication as driving a paradigm shift within solar PV. And with bifacial solar modules on single-axis trackers being increasingly adopted in utility-scale PV arrays, particularly in the U.S. and Australian marketplace, the company currently will have to overcome this technology trend.
McGrath argues that bifacial solar PV modules on single-axis trackers are “based on milking everything that can be milked out of that technology platform, whilst it remains relevant.” And that with ever-falling solar PV module prices, the economics for monofacial modules on an east-west orientation, packing in more MWp on a given footprint, is becoming increasingly compelling.
“The way to get the highest level of irradiance on an array is to fill it with east-west orientated modules at 10 degrees,” says McGrath. “When you overlay module price trend down, and you project that down in one year and two years’ time, it really only it takes two years to hit this inflection point in most markets around the world – that monofacial modules on an east-west on an LCOE basis, makes much more sense.”
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