Solar, batteries, hydrogen … GRS takes a portfolio approach to Australia

Already a high achiever in the utility-scale solar sector, the Spanish renewables firm is scanning the local market for locations to deliver a total 300MW of storage.

Despite what some say about the hardships of chasing the sun, Carlos Lopez says there is still “massive potential for solar” in Australia. “It’s true that there have been some challenges,” he says, lamenting a lack of clear guidance by federal energy policy. “Even so, we think the future looks very promising.”

The managing director of the Australian operation of Spanish renewables firm GRS, part of the Gransolar Group, Lopez is scoping opportunities for generation and storage.

Utility-scale solar seems to always be battling adversaries in the form of negative pricing, grid constraints and marginal loss factors, he admits, but as parts of the network await the liberating effects of transmission upgrades and connection to large storage projects, developers of large-scale solar are assessing and reassessing opportunities up and down the NEM.

“From a technical point of view I do strongly believe storage is going to be a big solution for the market and needs to be applied in every single solar farm in the future,” Lopez says. “We are on the right path.”

Lopez is equally as supportive of stand-alone battery applications as he is of storage at generation. “Both solutions can play a role here,” he says. “There are going to be projects where, depending on the area, a combination of solar plus storage will work, and others where storage is simply needed to reinforce the grid.”

Carlos Lopez is looking forward to helping AusNet achieve its battery storage targets.

In a connected grid there are going to be many owners of many generating plants trying to do the same thing: sell energy at the best price. For wind and solar, which generate whenever they feel like it, storage is a valuable addition to a project. It would make sense if plants that operate in proximity share a battery, but the rules dictate otherwise.

“In an ideal world, where you can have a lot of transparency and see what the others are doing, it would be great for your investment,” Lopez says. Confidentiality clauses get in the way, however, and commitment to storage becomes an intellectual study for networks, developers, business owners and investors to solve in their own little silos.

It’s the same all over the world, Lopez says, where competitive generator activity can suddenly change the economic outlook for a project. “If there could be any framework or policy to make everything more transparent, that would be good, but to be honest I see this as being quite difficult.”

Around the world, the company has completed 107 solar plants in 17 countries with more than 2.4GW capacity. In Australia, its portfolio of utility-scale plants completed or in development totals more than 550MW, including its EPC role in development of the 200MW Blue Grass Solar Farm in Queensland.

As to technology, Lopez says bifacial panels with tracking will become standard in the utility-scale solar sector. The increase in output from light harvested from above and from the rear of panels, combined with the effects of rotating arrays on single-axis tracking systems to face the sun and make the most of light reflected from the ground make the extra expense worth it, he says.

“There was a little bit of reluctance in the financing, looking at a new technology, but now I believe all the present and future developments will assume that bifacial is the right technology to choose,” says Lopez, pointing out that a project with bifacial panels can yield up to 7% more than one with monofacial modules, depending on the albedo (or reflected light, which itself relies on the type of groundcover and a few other things). Gransolar Group owns solar tracking company PV Hardware.

Through its storage company E22, Gransolar is working on a 5MW stand-alone storage project for transmission company AusNet in Longwarry, Victoria. It’s the start of a serious commitment to storage in Australia, where it hopes to build 13 assets totalling 300MW capacity over the medium term.

“The battery is to reinforce the grid and give services to AusNet,” Lopez says. “It’s a small battery but it will help us a lot to understand all the challenges of participating in the market as a generator with a battery and help us to expand our portfolio in Australia.”

As to a medium-term company target to deliver 300MW of storage, Lopez says the first job is to find areas that are heavily constrained or where constraints are likely to be felt as more renewables connect to the grid. “We are trying to talk with other developers and investors where they have current assets in the area and are struggling to not be curtailed,” he says. “We believe there is a technical solution and opportunity to develop batteries at those locations.”

Distributed network service providers are showing strong interest in tapping the potential of batteries in their networks. “It’s part of a complete process,” he says, with discussions underway with DNSPs in South Australia, Victoria and NSW. “It’s a long process, to be honest, but we are in the middle of it.”

Another way to store electricity is to use it to split water into oxygen and hydrogen, the latter being touted as a modern wonder fuel. “It’s still in very, very early stages but in our view it makes a lot of sense to use solar to make hydrogen in Australia,” says Lopez, with the two energy sources making a nice hybrid solution.

It might not happen overnight, as investors appraise the technology and decide their level of comfort with it. “We are looking at the technology and assessing how to do it in a cost competitive way,” says Lopez, speaking to EcoGeneration from Brisbane.

Lopez came to Australia from his native Spain and last year endured the rigours of quarantine as covid-19 interrupted his family’s relocation. “I got struck in Spain and then had to do the quarantine here with my wife,” he says. “What an experience.”

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