Hot new projects part 4: Plug and Play solar

And the final post in our series of hot new projects! ‘Plug and Play solar’ is not a new PlayStation game (we wish); it is a project to develop energy management software to manage the various renewable and traditional energy sources a building or site might have.

For example, remote mining operations or towns – like Marble Bar or Hermannsburg – have traditionally been powered by fossil fuels like gas and diesel, but more and more are turning to renewable sources such as solar. Traditionally, it has been up to the system operator to decide when to use which sources. This is often not as easy as it sounds, mostly because of the variable nature of renewable energy sources. Often this means that fossil fuel backup systems are left running just in case a cloud might pass or wind might drop – not the most fuel-efficient solution. What would really help would be an automated system able to intelligently handle multiple fossil and renewable sources.

CSIRO is working on the answer.

Hermannsburg in the Northern Territory.

Remote communities like Hermannsburg in the Northern Territory, which are powered by a mixture of renewable and fossil fuel sources, could benefit from the Plug and Play technology. Image source: Solar Systems

Plug and Play is a system where a user can ‘plug’ in the various sources and the system automatically and intelligently ‘plays’, or works out what source to use, when to use and how it should be used. You tell the system what your top priorities are – minimising diesel usage, lowering maintenance costs, or maximising power availability, for example – and it will make the best decisions about when to schedule the diesel generator, when to make the most of the solar panels and when to charge the batteries.

The tool will also be invaluable when designing new remote area power supplies. It’ll help to choose the best mixture of energy technologies for the site’s needs and decide how to size them. And then, instead of needing to have custom hardware and software designed to manage that unique mix, the Plug and Play system will help do it for you.

Senior project scientist Dr John Ward says it’s in the commissioning phase of these power systems that some of the most significant benefits will be seen. “Reducing the need for ‘on the ground’ engineers will be an important outcome,” he told the solar blog. “Currently each is different and unique and needs considerable specialised and costly engineering.”

This project is also expected to have flow-on effects that’ll benefit more than just remote towns. “Next stop would be rural areas, specifically with SWER (single-wire earth return) power lines,” Dr Ward says. “Such areas only have a very ‘weak’ connection to the grid, so they face similar issues to the islanded systems being targeted for this project.

“Our team believes that as the electricity grid evolves to have more interplay between consumer demand and resource availability, there’ll be a role for Plug and Play type systems to become mainstream in every part of the electricity grid.”

A remote site.

Benefits of the technology could flow on from remote locations to play a more mainstream role in the grid. Image: AdelaideNow

It’s no easy feat however. The project is worth over $2.9 million and will take several years to complete. We’re working with ABB Australia, the United States’ National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

The first phase of the project will involve the development of the technology and the second phase will see pilot systems set up in both the United States and Australia. The final product will be a cost effective, retrofit system that can be easily installed, without the need for expert labour. We think it will ultimately be of benefit to thousands of remotely based residents.

The project is one of four projects announced in December 2013 as part of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and United States-Australia Solar Energy (USAEC) Collaboration. It builds on our existing expertise in areas including solar intermittency, customer load management, the virtual power station, mini grid planning, and the work we’ve done on Australian standards for inverter energy systems and load control.

Check out the factsheet for more information.

New wind turbine for Newcastle site

The winds of change have passed over our site (yes, I do bad wind power puns too). In August a new wind turbine was installed and we’re pleased to report it’s been working well and is supplying power to our buildings.

As has been mentioned before on the blog, our original turbines supplied electricity to CSIRO Energy Technology here in Newcastle for several years despite having had a bit of an (ahem) turbulent run. Installed when the site was first developed in 2003, the three 20 kW units endured a run of bad luck including two separate lightning strikes, mechanical problems, and changes to the supplier’s market support which was moved from Australia to a location 17000 kilometres away.

Site photo from 2007 showing the three original wind turbines

This is what lightning can do to a turbine blade

The northernmost turbine was removed in 2010 to make way for Solar Field 2. The remaining two were removed from their poles last year awaiting repair.

After consultation and much research CSIRO decided the best way forward was to change to a completely new turbine, which was installed on 9 August.

Our new turbine during installation

The new 5 kW unit has been installed on one of the existing footings and is mounted on a hydraulic tilt pole that’ll make maintenance a breeze (ba-boom). We’ve also been able to engage one of the several wind power companies that exist now and have solid track records and local backing.

The new turbine was up and running just in time to make use of the windy weather we had the following weekend (which of course, as we love to point out on this blog, gets its power from the sun).

Wind turbine power output over 7 days, showing moment it was brought on-grid

Our new wind turbine isn’t just useful for helping power our building. It’s also part of an experiment carried out by our Smart Grid group. They use it, and all the other on-site generators (such as our many solar PV systems and our two gas microturbines), to investigate grid stability, distributed generation and intermittency management – in other words, how to make sure a region can have a constant, reliable energy supply, even when it’s coming from multiple varying sources.

I’m glad to see the new turbine up and running. When it comes to wind power, we’re huge fans.


Addendum (1.11.2012): since publishing this post I’ve been reminded by others that the three ‘original’ turbines in the photo were actually the second lot to be installed, not the first. Before them came a different set, installed by a different company, that experienced problems in a storm not long after the site opened. The supplier went out of business and was unable to maintain the turbines, which we subsequently replaced with the three shown at the top of this post.

One of the main factors leading to these problems has been that the wind market has become polarised into either supplying small units of 1 to 5 kW, or big ones of 1 to 10 MW. Our size preference of about 20 kW is in the middle – an area that’s less robustly covered by the market. This has contributed to our decision to size our newest turbine at 5 kW.

100 facts about Solar at CSIRO: Part 4

To celebrate our 100th blog post, we’ve put together (in no particular order) a list of 100 things you may not know about solar research at CSIRO. Today we talk about solar cooling research, our on-site generation from solar power, and the raw material itself: sunlight.

◊  ◊  ◊

Solar cooling

  1. CSIRO solar cooling technology can provide air conditioning, heating and hot water to a building – all from the low-temperature energy gathered by conventional solar hot water panels.
  2. CSIRO’s two-room ‘balanced ambient calorimeter’can replicate the weather conditions of different locations all around the world. This lets us test how conventional or solar air conditioners would perform in cities or countries with different patterns of temperature and humidity.

    An experiment you can walk inside: our two-room balanced ambient calorimeter

  3. The balanced ambient calorimeter can test solar air conditioners ‘on sun’ (using real solar heat), and can even replicate the effects of different building materials (like insulation) and different heat sources (like people or computers).
  4. CSIRO’s commercial-scale solar cooling technology has been installed at the Hamilton TAFE. It provides space cooling, space heating and hot water for teaching-kitchens, the campus function room, and office spaces.

Solar on site

  1. There are over 100 kW of solar photovoltaic panels generating electricity for the Newcastle site. Three different varieties are represented: monocrystalline silicon, polycrystalline silicon and dye-sensitised cells.
  2. The dye sensitised array on our building was the first commercial installation of DSCs in the world.

    Stained glass window: our dye sensitised cell array from the outside (left) and inside (right).

  3. The sun helps us reduce our use of air conditioning. The stairwells in our office building act like ‘solar chimneys’ that draw a natural flow of fresh, cool air in from the central gardens and through the building.
  4. The sun helps us save on lighting costs. White boards outside the windows called ‘light shelves’ reflect diffuse light into the office, allowing the fluorescent lights to dim and save power.
  5. Our on-site generation, which includes our solar panels, saves us a lot of CO2 emissions every year – but we save five times as much as that again due to our energy-efficient building features. It just goes to show that prevention really is better than cure.


  1. In the 12 months to date, each square meter on our site has received about 5.8 gigajoules of solar energy. That’s equal to the amount of energy released by burning a barrel of oil. Over our whole Newcastle site, that adds up to about 45,000 barrels of oil equivalent.
  2. The best sites in Australia can receive over 9 gigajoules of solar energy per square metre each year. That’s about one and a half times what we get in Newcastle – which in turn is about one and a half times as much sunlight as the best solar locations in Germany.
  3. The sun doesn’t simply rise in the east and set in the west. At our Newcastle site in summer the sun rises 29 degrees south of east.

    Not really a robot playing golf.

  4. We measure how much solar energy we get using a device that looks like a golf-playing robot.
  5. How do you know just how sunny your part of Australia is? CSIRO’s Marine and Atmospheric Research division is working on it. They’re collaborating with the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and NREL in the US to make Australia’s first comprehensive solar radiation data set.