An accelerated push for renewable energy has opened the door for innovators seeking to build, deliver and maintain the dream of net zero.
The Canning Vale industrial precinct is not necessarily ground zero when discussion turns to the energy revolution.
But it is here, located among workshops and warehouses, that a business emblematic of the opportunities in renewable efficiency is quietly getting things done.
September’s launch of the new Solar Energy Robotics manufacturing facility – where the nation’s first advanced solar panel cleaning machines are being developed and built – was five years in the making for parent company Innovative Energy Solutions (IES).
The waterless machines are designed for Australian conditions and built using 96 per cent Australia-sourced components.
The units’ invention and growth from a thought bubble to a standalone facility provides a narrative that highlights the opportunities at play in the emerging renewables servicing sector.
This particular journey starts in 2018, when IES was engaged to quote on the installation of additional solar panels at a communications tower with power issues at BHP’s Jimblebar project in the Pilbara.
The seemingly innocuous job planted a seed for things to come.
“When they got there, the panels were covered in dust,” Solar Energy Robotics chief executive Ben Brayford told Business News.
“The client was trying to manually clean them with a brush, but it was too much upkeep for their team and the panels kept failing within a few days.
“Eventually the batteries weren’t charging properly, and the client was relying on its failover diesel power back-up. The communication tower eventually went down.”
The initial solution assumed additional solar panels would fix the reliability issues with the existing infrastructure at the Jimblebar tower.
Tasked with quoting on the installation of more panels, IES instead recognised the opportunity to deliver greater efficiency in what was already there. “What they really needed was a cleaning solution,” Mr Brayford said. “Additional solar power panels weren’t going to fix it as an issue. “That’s where our story started.” Today BHP uses 24 of Solar Energy Robotics’ mining specification autonomous robotic solar panel cleaners at Jimblebar.
The cleaners apply a remarkably simple logic to delivering greater mine site efficiency: in the most basic terms, the panels can capture more energy when the dust is removed. “Since it was installed, the panels operate at 100 per cent efficiency,” Mr Brayford said. “The diesel back-up power that had to kick in daily is now a true redundant power supply. “That site in particular loves the product. The reliability of the power supply improves, and that allows them to keep the mine site going.”
The company’s solar cleaners are in action across several other sites in the BHP stable, lending themselves to the push towards autonomous operation.
Operators including Fortescue Metals Group, Rio Tinto and Roy Hill have also expressed interest in the technology.
“We’re gearing up to be able to scale-in further, to accommodate the massive energy transition that’s coming into play,” Mr Brayford said.
“Fortescue, Rio Tinto and others are in the process of building gigawatts of solar at the moment, and they’re going to be autonomous maintenance systems.
“The whole thing is developing as we speak.”
The Solar Energy Robotics story highlights the scale of opportunity that exists in optimisation as the state ramps up its push towards a net-zero future.
Australian Bureau of Statistics data maps the rapid rate of investment growth in Western Australia’s renewables sector between 2016-17 and 2021-22.
In the earlier period – the first-year renewable investment was tracked by the ABS – $33.6 million worth of work was carried out in the state.
The figure as reported by the bureau ballooned to $284.5 million in 2017-18 and climbed above $1.1 billion in 2019-20, before slipping back to below $500 million in 2020-21 and 2021-22, years where COVID and its flow-on effects took hold.
While the 2022-23 figures were not available at time of writing, the scale of incentives on offer for WA renewables projects suggest further acceleration is on the way.
That’s highlighted by the federal government’s $3 billion commitment to WA under the Rewiring the Nation fund, the keynote announcement of Anthony Albanese’s Perth cabinet visit earlier this year.
The 2023 state budget included $368 million for renewable generation projects.
While the headline figures – backed by governments and industry – are in the multitudes of billions, the opportunity extends beyond the installation to maintenance and efficiency.
It comes against the backdrop of a renewed, post-COVID domestic manufacturing push.
Speaking at the opening of the Solar Energy Robotics facility, Innovation and the Digital Economy Minister Stephen Dawson said WA had the potential to build and deliver global solutions servicing the renewables sector.
“As we rush to decarbonise the world, we need to use more solar panels and more wind energy,” he said.
“But what we haven’t done up to now is develop great technology to make sure we’re getting as much out of our solar panels as we can.”
It’s a window of opportunity front of mind for Mr Brayford, whose company has been nominated as a finalist in two categories of the WA Innovator of the Year awards decided later this month.
“We know the scale of this rollout in our transition to renewables, in particular solar, is going to create challenges associated with supply and installation,” Mr Brayford said.
“But there’s also then the maintenance and upkeep of what’s been installed [and how] we maintain that scale of operation.
“The renewables transition will be on a scale that not only Australia hasn’t seen before, but also that the world hasn’t seen before.
“We won’t be alone on that path, but we will have unique challenges that we will have to overcome along the way.”
The development of bigger and better renewable energy infrastructure appears to be keeping pace with the growth in demand.
WA-headquartered national business Pilecom started installing solar farms around five years ago. It currently has 585 megawatts worth of solar farm projects across the state.
Director Luke Cousins told Business News the business’s delivery book had doubled in size every year since, with turnovers to match.
Pilecom’s scope of work involves the installation of solar farms using tracking systems, which allow solar panels to follow the sun, capturing more light than would be possible with a fixed panel.
The business recently completed a job for net-zero-focused iron ore major Fortescue in the Pilbara and estimates that about 80 per cent of its work comes from the mining and resources sector.
Mr Cousins said the quality of panel infrastructure available to clients had improved significantly over Pilecom’s time in the business.
“The tracking system hasn’t changed much over the number of years, but the actual solar panel modules have changed immensely,” he said.
“The technology is now bifacial, so it gets reflection from the back of the panel as well as the front.
“The size has doubled. A solar farm we built three or four years ago would have been a 350-watt system; now we’re building 600- to 700-watt modules, so they’ve doubled the outputs.
“The size of the modules has increased a bit, but the technology has improved a lot.”
Efficiency improvements and tracking infrastructure mean solar farms can be installed on smaller footprints than even a few years ago; a benefit in an industry where red tape and land-use approvals are of primary concern to operators.
While solar farms are becoming more compact, the growth and development of infrastructure in wind energy is creating some unique challenges for operators in the WA context.
In conversation with Business News in September, Horizon Power chief executive Stephanie Unwin touched on the unique challenges the government-owned utility faced in securing right-sized standalone systems required to generate power in the state’s more remote areas.
Ms Unwin singled out wind turbines as an unlikely pressure point for Horizon, which is tasked with delivering power infrastructure outside of the state’s main South West Interconnected System grid.
Ms Unwin said smaller-scale systems, like those required to service smaller communities in WA, were becoming more difficult to track down as the renewables world trended toward bigger systems to generate more power.
“In the small scale at the moment, we are really struggling to find wind turbines that are half a megawatt, because all of the turbines manufactured in the world are getting bigger and bigger,” she said.
“They tend to start at two megawatts and go from there to a much bigger scale.
“That’s one tiny example of some of the challenges we face.”
Pacific Energy is a leader in the standalone power system space and another on the WA manufacturing pathway, having delivered more than 120 systems across the state for clients including Horizon and Western Power since 2019.
Similar to the experience of Solar Energy Robotics, Pacific Energy chief executive Jamie Cullen told Business News that the local manufacturing element of its work was strategic, allowing it to focus on delivering a locally suitable product.
“It’s driven by the need for products to be fit for purpose in our harsh operating environment, and to last through the contract terms maintaining full reliability,” he said.
“The products that are available generally, batteries and electrolysers, for example, require an increased balance of plant to make them fit for purpose.
“What we focus on is bringing the best components from around the world and assembling these into systems that can be manufactured and tested here in Perth.
“[This helps] reduce site installation and testing times and … control and maintain exceptional level of quality.”
The product delivered needs to be increasingly green, particularly when it comes to government and mining industry clients. Mr Cullen said the renewable requirement within its systems had increased from 20 per cent early days to as high as 80 per cent currently.
Opportunity is also emerging in the transition of existing clients away from fossil fuel systems.
Pacific was recently the recipient of a $2.4 million investment from the WA Investment Attraction Fund to improve its capability and output in manufacturing, with a focus on modular systems.
Mr Cullen said opportunities in renewable technology were only going to get greater in WA.
“The rapid advancement in technology and opportunities to include new and emerging technologies in our offering to provide an all-in-one solution remains front and centre for Pacific Energy,” he said.
The sentiment was shared by Mr Cousins from Pilecom. “It’s literally a new industry,” Mr Cousins said. “There’ll be a lot of electrical innovation, cleaning innovation, getting the best output out of the sun, and transferring it into energy. “And then it goes to hydrogen; the innovation is just beginning.”
For all the potential in supply and service of renewable technology in WA, an all-toofamiliar challenge faces those who dabble in the startup space.
System delivery may be on the up, but praise and interest does not necessarily fill the order book.
Solar Energy Robotics’ expansion into its new Canning Vale facility was a decision that would allow it to ramp up its product delivery and development, but Mr Brayford said recognition did not always translate to immediate demand.
“With the energy transition and the transition towards autonomous mining, there is huge opportunity in WA,” he said. “But it’s still not easy to commercialise robotics or technology in the mining sector. “We need the support from mining companies to continue to open up with procurement and support technology suppliers.
“They basically put a call to action to technology suppliers to support them and, ultimately, all we’re looking for is purchase orders in return. “We don’t want grants or handouts… what we do need is purchase orders. “That can be the hardest part, those can be very difficult to get.”