It’s a Solar Boom for Wemen! Interview: WIRSOL’s Matthew Rose
Wemen Solar Farm is a single-axis tracking PV project, located in the state of Victoria, Australia, an hour outside of the city of Mildura. The site has an installed capacity of approx. 110-megawatt peak (MWp) DC, spanning across an area close to 700 acres.
Owned by our parent company, WIRCON GmbH, Wemen Solar Farm is considered one of the largest solar operations in the state of Victoria today. We at WIRSOL are continuing to work hard to realise renewable energy systems of all sizes, using our extensive experience gathered from building more than 800MWp of renewable energy projects internationally.
Wemen Solar Farm is financed by the CEFC (Clean Energy Finance Corporation) and entered its final phase of commissioning in February 2019, after an active timeline of approximately 12 months. Now operational, we are proud to see the solar farm produce enough energy to power approx. 34,000 homes in the region, whilst preventing the emission of approx. 117,000 tonnes of CO2 per annum.
We chat to our Project Manager, Matthew Rose, based in Solar Beach (Manly, Australia) who played [and continues to play] a crucial part in delivering our largest utility-scale solar project to date. Having been tasked with unforeseen jurisdictional challenges, such as the recent RCR Tomlinson collapse and managing a project that employed over 615 during the construction phase, we are excited to have Matthew join us to share his knowledge on the renewable energy sector and the latest information on Wemen Solar Farm.
Hi Matthew, congratulations for seeing Wemen Solar Farm [WSF] through to the final stages of commissioning/completion! Since joining WIRSOL 1.5 years ago, you’ve seen some impressive milestones reached – what would you say has been the biggest highlight for you?
Thanks very much for having me. It’s been an amazing journey and it really is fantastic to see Wemen putting out 100% of its energy – doing what it was incepted, designed and built for!
There have been so many highlights throughout this project, but a few that stand out are achieving our 1st export of clean energy earlier than scheduled on what was always a very aggressive timeline. The day we physically connected to the national electricity grid was also a huge day with a number of anxious engineers in the substation before we closed the breakers to ‘turn on the switch’ so to speak.
Outside of the actual construction works, something that has been a real highlight for me is the amount of support from the local community and from Swan Hill Council right from the start of this project. It has been outstanding, and I’ve always felt welcomed at every Airbnb, motel and corner shop.
And, whilst I wouldn’t call it a highlight, working through the RCR collapse successfully has been really rewarding in the end. The team on site became even more like a little family as we pulled together after what was a tough time for many people. We joined forces with Laing O’ Rourke, went to a 12-hour night shift and managed to reach 100% generation earlier than our revised timeline! This was definitely celebrated by us at Wirsol and the site teams.
Now that WSF is generating at full capacity, how do you see the project benefiting the local community and the surrounding areas?
Well the community should be proud of what has been achieved at Wemen and also what has been implemented regarding renewable energy as a whole in the region. I had a number of community engagement events, including an interview with the local radio station (my first taste of fame) where the community was always extremely supportive.
Wemen is now producing Clean Renewable Energy for over 90,000 people* and will ensure that the share of ‘dirty energy’ continues to be reduced, paving the way for more renewables.
Swan Hill Council has also done a great job in promoting renewables for the larger community which has meant that we have been able to create a vast array of local jobs in the renewable energy space, including further job creation for the lifetime of the project (30 years) targeting the surrounding communities and landowners.
What were the main challenges you faced as Project Manager for WSF?
I think I touched on it before but the weather extremes in summer were certainly a challenge – going into the hottest time of year with weeks above 45 degrees in January. We were able to be agile in our approach and that meant we were able to move to night-shift work for the electrical DC installation. This proved to be a fruitful decision as we hit some of our highest install productivity numbers whilst ensuring that H&S was a priority in those kinds of temperatures.
Dealing with the collapse of a contractor was no small feat. It was an unexpected challenge, and luckily, we had a team that was prepared to go the extra mile and pull together. We really were incredibly fortunate in that regard.
The commissioning phases differ to our projects in Europe, there is a more detailed testing process, tell us about the steps leading up to reaching its final commissioning stage?
Yes, as you say it is quite different to that in Europe and involves a pre-determined and detailed regime for testing the performance of each Solar Farm.
In Australia, a commissioning plan is developed and then carried out at various levels of output such as 20% output, 50% output and 100% output, which are termed “hold points”. This hold point testing is performed at the applicable level which then requires a report to be submitted to the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) and the relevant Network Service Provider. Once they have approved the test report, the plant is released to proceed to the next hold point. This is repeated to reach 100% generation in order to be deemed a fully commissioned and operational plant.
The process isn’t quite as rigorous in Europe, so that was something we needed to consider in the Australian market.
Thanks, Matthew – now let’s move onto the renewable energy sector in general. What do you think the main challenges are that we face in society today when it comes to trying to create a greener environment – on both a personal and professional level?
There is no doubt that we have made huge strides in the last few years and we are now in a remarkable time in history where ‘greening’ the environment makes sense, not only to society but also to the financial bottom line. However, we still need to do better – we need more holistic policies as well as greater certainty and accountability from government.
From a societal point of view, for consumers there are a lot of good green-energy options out there, but they are still at too high a price to gain mass attraction. Unfortunately, “Going green” is often still a value driver for the power companies with consumers paying more for it from the retailers. This is a shame as we know that renewables can generate energy at a lower cost base than that of conventional methods.
Do you see any evolving trends in the renewable energy sector?
The major trends that we are seeing continue to be technology based. Bi-Facial modules have started to take off over the last 12 months and I think this will increase dramatically as we move forward, in order to gain efficiency and yield whilst still utilising the same footprint of land.
The other key area is obviously Energy Storage which will continue to play a pivotal role in the future of the renewable energy sector by ensuring a smooth and steady power supply from renewable sources. Energy storage technologies continue to improve, meaning that they are more viable and affordable.
I’m also very interested to see how Artificial Intelligence (AI) influences the ever-changing environment of renewables for distributed energy independence and efficiency.
Lastly, a question we ask all our ‘hub’ guests – what would you say to those who have the attitude that they are ‘only one person and therefore cannot make a difference’?
One of my favourite quotes at the moment is “It’s only one straw’ said 8 million people”. If we have the power collectively to consume negligently and have the impact on the environment that we have had, then the reverse is true too. I think abdicating responsibility on the basis of being only one person vastly underestimates the power of one.
We are more influential in the lives of those around us than we think. If you are a parent your kids are watching you and learning from you, if you have guests in your home, they see what you are doing and how you have your home set up – we influence our partners and friends with our attitudes towards the environment.
We vote for the sort of world we want to live in by how we spend our money, how we spend our time, and the actions we take on a daily basis.