Can our solar farms weather the storm?

FM Global
Friday, 22 March, 2019

Can our solar farms weather the storm?

Assessing damage risk to solar panels in extreme weather conditions, such as high winds and tropical cyclones, is vital to protecting the nation’s investment in renewable energy.

Commercial property insurer FM Global has urged the Australian Government and power-generation and insurance industries to standardise resilience testing of solar panels.

Sun Metals Corporation (SMC), collaborating with the James Cook University Cyclone Testing Station and FM Global, has completed wind-tunnel and structural static testing of ground-mounted solar panels in Australia to understand the risk of high-wind and cyclone damage to solar farms.

The testing project was designed to reveal areas of exposure at SMC’s recently installed $200 million Townsville solar farm, claimed to be the largest solar farm in Australia. The Sun Metals Solar Farm is a huge facility incorporating more than 1.3 million solar panels. The 124 MW solar power station supplies the equivalent of around one-third of the electricity powering the Sun Metals zinc refinery, located approximately 15 km south of Townsville.

Static testing of the ground-mounted solar panels was conducted by James Cook University’s Cyclone Testing Station in collaboration with RCR Tomlinson, the installer of the solar farm. Wind-tunnel tests were performed by CPP consultants. Static testing is a first step to initiate the evaluation and should be conducted along with comprehensive dynamic load calculations yet to be considered.

Sun Metals and its solar installer, RCR Tomlinson, worked with James Cook University’s cyclone-testing station for wind-tunnel and structural static testing of ground-mounted solar panels so it could withstand winds of up to 200 km/h.

Lee said Sun Metals was happy to make its solar panels more sturdy given that Townsville is often hit by tropical storms. “Townsville is hit by cyclones pretty regularly. I’ll be honest with you, when we first got there it looked like a million flat-screen TVs in a huge paddock and when you held onto one of the panels, it looked pretty flimsy,” he said.

“When we looked at the risks, we didn’t think it would withstand a cyclone. But the testing showed it could.”

Australia’s appetite for renewable energy projects, including large-scale solar, has propelled the nation towards its 2020 Renewable Energy Target. With increased uptake of solar, the potential for equipment failures to cause major disruption and multimillion-dollar losses for consumers and businesses has also risen. The Queensland region experiences an average of 4.7 tropical cyclones per year, yet despite this, standardised resilience testing of solar panels does not exist.

An article published in Nature Geoscience commented that greenhouse warming may cause the globally averaged intensity of tropical cyclones to shift towards stronger storms, with intensity increases of 2–11% by 2100. Warmer ocean temperatures may also affect the longevity of severe storms. This highlights the importance of standardised assessment to ensure solar installations are able to weather increasingly violent winds and storms.

SMC Chief Financial Officer and Director Kathy Danaher said, “We recognised we were building our solar farm in a cyclone-prone area and made sure we designed all aspects of the build with the risks in mind. We reached out to FM Global to ensure our farm was as safe as possible and we are pleased that our solar panels performed strongly.”

FM Global advocates for wind-resilience testing to be required under national regulations. The insurer promotes wind design and testing guidance for wind-resistant systems across its branches worldwide.

FM Global Operations Manager Lynette Schultheis commented, “Australia is a global leader in renewable energy and we’re seeing the largest growth of large-scale solar projects in the north of the country. This area also happens to have the highest exposure to cyclonic winds.

“It’s imperative for both solar users and key players in the power generation industry to understand and mitigate the risks these solar farms face. FM Global hopes the government and insurance industry will get on board to standardise the resilience testing of solar panels and futureproof our country’s renewable energy investments.”

Australia’s pipeline of large-scale solar projects has leapt to 35 GW, joining an existing 564 MW of large-scale solar connected to the grid.

Image credit: © Laird

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