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Author: C. Connelly
Date: 1st September 2015

An Australian start-up is helping rural communities get off the grid using floating solar rafts that sit atop water reservoirs.

Infratech Industries, based in Sydney, has erected a a 300-kilogram floating solar array in Jamestown, South Australia – roughly 2 hours south of Adelaide – which it claims generates 57 per cent more energy than rooftop solar and can deliver consumers 10-15 per cent saving on black energy.

With four more arrays in the pipeline, a United States subsidiary, and plans to expand to Europe and Indonesia, the company wants to use embedded generation to help communities develop their own infrastructure and power source.

How it works

The array is made up of 112 solar panels that move with the sun, allowing it to soak up more sunlight and generate more energy, for more hours in the day.

The company also deploys a process called “concentration”, whereby mirrors are attached to each solar panel. The mirrors increase the amount of light hitting the panels, doubling the energy it creates compared with rooftop solar, according to Professor David Lewis, director of Flinders University’s Centre for NanoScale Science and Technology, who supports the company’s claim of delivering 57 per cent more energy than rooftop solar.

“We have been looking at the data that comes from a system at the site,” Professor Lewis said. “That’s how I am comfortable saying that we’ve got about twice the power output for the light intensity that was hitting the panels.” Flinders University, which is not an investor in the solar array project, is playing a “technical support role”, assisting with material selection and assemblage to ensure maximum power efficiency.

How these arrays compare with traditional solar

The problem with rooftop solar systems is that they lose efficiency with increasing heat, says Infratech Industries chief executive officer Rajesh Nellore.

“You’re not normally going to have a fountain on your roof to cool them down,” Dr Nellore says.

To cool the panels you need water, which make water reservoirs the perfect location for a solar array. The water from the reservoirs is treated through a series of nano filters, making it safe to use to cool the panels. The company provides the excess treated water to the communities in Jamestown and surrounds

Besides which, rooftop solar is a very selfish way to think about sustainability, he says, because it comes with expensive up-front costs and benefits only a single home or family.

“It is a selfish way of helping yourself because only those who can afford it, pay a premium or can access it through a government subsidy can have solar-based renewable energy,” he says.

As for where Infratech’s technology sits compared with its competitors, the CEO says the company is not designed to compete with power generators “but rather offer infrastructure solutions that can be paid off through purchase of power rather than raising rates”.

“We are all about generating employment and helping people help themselves and develop their own sustainable infrastructure,” he said. The company offers a water solution, which is used to offset the cost of the infrastructure.

“Consider if a council needs to process their waste water and they have to build a treatment plant,” says Dr Nellore. “We can amortise the cost of the treatment plant into the rate of power so that the ratepayers are not affected by their rates going up to pay for new infrastructure. It allows everyone in the community a lower cost of power, while giving employment opportunities.”

Anyone can sign up to buy energy or water from Infratech, but the CEO admits it does require a catalyst.

“In this case that catalyst is the local government or councils,” he says. ”As long as people understand the benefit it brings, which sometimes can be difficult to explain – like the sustainability aspects, water benefits, people investing in themselves, community benefit as opposed to individual benefits – I think it is a no-brainer.”

Why Australia? Why now?

Dr Nellore is a venture capitalist who hails from India but spends his time commuting through the US, Europe, Indonesia and Australia. When asked “why Australia?”, Dr Nellore says it was because our state and local councils have been particularly receptive to the idea.

“Contrary to general perception about all Australians being rich given that most things in Australia are expensive, there is a sizeable Australian population that needs help to survive,” he said. ”We are all about putting dollars back into the pockets of those who are struggling by lowering their rates. It is about helping [those] people where help is needed.”

The arrays are totally scalable and the company is already looking to replicate much smaller – and larger – solutions for the mining industry as well as local and international communities. The company is implementing a project in California – made up of 3000 solar panels – to assist with the continuing drought and the subsequent 25 per cent mandated water restrictions.

The “Aussie Array” is sitting atop a body of drinking water in Imperial Valley, Holtville. ”It is a very valuable proposition,” says Infratech director Felicia Whiting.

Whiting says she eventually wants to be able to export the technology to developing economies where communities are most in need of fresh farming and drinking water. Unfortunately, the arrays won’t work as a personal domestic energy alternative: the size of even the smallest tank you’d need to make the solution workable isn’t available to buy in a catalogue.

But for rural and regional Australians in smaller communities, a project like this starts to make sense.

“You will get to the stage where you get sublets of 10, 20, 30, or 50 houses which could run be through a substation or suburb,” Whiting says. “At that point the cost averages out because of the different usage patterns across houses; it changes cost profile and averages that out a bit.

“That type of thing being the way power distribution will evolve to any way because you can then put storage into locations and have some level of maintenance.”

But Dr Nellore admits a solution such as this requires energy retailers to play ball, a process he has described as an “uphill struggle”.

Infratech transmits the energy generated to the local community directly, courtesy of a recycled electricity pipe built for the council. It sells any excess electricity to the grid, but the duo have plans for a battery

The array generates enough power to supply 10 households for a year, according to Whiting, with a smoothing system – which “smooths out” the energy transmission to ensure a more consistent transfer of energy – in the pipeline to assist with nights and rainy days.

When asked whether it would consider working with a company like Tesla, which has threatened to form its own energy company if other retailers refuse to get on board with its new Powerwall battery, the director said it was scrambling to release its own superior product.

“Unlike lithium-ion batteries, which are not safe for operation in and around water bodies due to the level of environmental sensitivity – the energy storage system we are funding and developing with Flinders University uses a nano particulate,” Whiting says. “We use metals that are not harmful to the water environment.”

As for when the battery will be ready? “Watch this space,” Whiting says.

Read the article at The Sydney Morning Herald