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Are Embedded Solar Networks The Future?

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Andrew Simons, Head of Development – Industrial and Logistics at Charter Hall tells MHD why solar power is the future of renewable-led industrial and logistics estates, and the opportunities and challenges that currently surround the construction of embedded solar networks. 

Andrew Simons, Head of Development – Industrial and Logistics at Charter Hall says the industrial and logistics sector has recently been making great strides when it comes to setting environmental sustainability and utility use benchmarks. This is something that Charter Hall is also working to address, he says.  

Andrew says over the past few years, Charter Hall’s Industrial and Logistics sector has seen year-on-year improvement across all investment funds regarding key sustainability benchmarks, including Green Star performance and GRESB ratings. Charter Hall is taking a proactive stance, evaluating the Green Star ratings of over 137 assets and working on sustainability initiatives that will improve these ratings across its industrial and logistics portfolio, he says. 

As the owner and manager of 49 per cent of Australia’s grocery logistics real estate, Charter Hall is Australia’s largest grocery logistics landlord, funding, developing and owning key warehouse and distribution facilities for major food companies such as Coles, Woolworths and Ingham’s. With these major tenants requiring a substantial amount of power to maintain a consistent temperature for inventory storage, Charter Hall works with each tenant to meet their respective ESG targets. This typically involves offsetting as much of this energy as possible with the use of renewables. 

According to Andrew, one key area that Charter Hall’s Industrial and Logistics sector is currently focusing on is accelerating the rate of solar installation across the rooftops of warehouses. 

“Due to the sheer amount of space available on the rooftops of our industrial and logistics facilities, the untapped potential of solar is the real game-changer that we are focused on substantially accelerating on a year-on-year basis,” Andrew says. 

When asked what he believes is the next step in solar power advancements within the industrial and logistics sector, Andrew points immediately to embedded solar networks as the way forward for the industry.

Embedded solar networks are privately-owned electricity distribution systems that use a network of solar panels to power groups of buildings or tenant spaces. These are often used for large shopping centres, office buildings or industrial parks that house multiple tenants.

Andrew says Charter Hall is proposing to join warehouses within an estate to an overarching embedded solar network. This would allow them to supply excess solar power from one building to others throughout their industrial estates, creating a microgrid of renewable power. 

“Constructing embedded solar networks comes with countless benefits,” explains Andrew. “You get the most benefit out of solar power if you are able to utilise excess energy for other buildings, rather than just transferring unused power back into the grid, which can come with its own complications if the grid becomes overloaded.”

“This distribution of power also helps to drive down electricity costs and provide a competitive business advantage by allowing Charter Hall to offer cheaper and ‘Green’ electricity to tenants,” he adds. “This flexibility would allow our tenant customers to take up more solar power over time as their business grows, their needs evolve, and their operations expand.”

But Andrew explains that constructing this kind of embedded solar panel network within an industrial estate is easier said than done, due to restrictive red tape and regulatory barriers.

Head of Development – Industrial and Logistics at Charter Hall.

“A lot of the existing state and federal legislation dictates that you can’t cross public roads or title boundaries with private infrastructure, which is where we run into the most issues,” says Andrew. “Midwest Logistics Estate in Truganina, Victoria, for example, has three major roads that cut through the estate, so we are currently trying to work around the titling issues and connect the buildings that lie at the boundaries of these roads.

“It is clear that these regulations were once put in place for a sensible reason, but unfortunately, these historic laws do not reflect the changing times and subsequent advancements in solar technology that are available to us now.”

Additionally, a small pool of energy retailers in each state typically controls the permissions surrounding how much energy companies are allowed to export – which can inhibit the creation of these self-sustaining micro-grids, Andrew says. “That’s another area that needs to be addressed if we are to allow the industry to make the most of renewable rooftop generation and share that energy a little more readily.”

Charter Hall’s Industrial and Logistics sector has pilot projects running to test how they may work around some of those issues and are aiming to secure approval for an exemption development that includes an embedded network.

“We’re investing in these pilot projects to try and move the dial and benefit the industrial and logistics industry as a whole,” says Andrew. “For the sake of our planet, the industry and our economy, you should be able to generate the maximum benefit by providing the surplus power generated from one building to other buildings within local proximity, rather than the significant inefficiency of transferring this surplus power back into the grid.”

Coles Distribution Centre, SA – installation is in progress of a large 1.9MW system.

In the meantime, Charter Hall is committed to building as much solar infrastructure as possible, while it waits for the legislation to catch up. It has set up a taskforce to create a bespoke strategy for individual tenant customers in each building, to maximise the number of solar panels that can be fitted to each rooftop.

Originally, Charter Hall was designing standard ‘Ambient’ buildings to take up to 20 per cent solar on the rooftops of industrial facilities. However, Andrew says the company is increasing this target significantly, and is currently looking at solutions to reinforce the roof strength and wind load of every building to take 100 per cent solar – regardless of the current needs of the tenant.

“Over the next three years, we have committed to building 11 megawatts of solar across our Industrial and Logistics portfolio,” says Andrew. “Nearly three megawatts of that solar will be located within our Midwest Logistics Hub estate – our newest development in Truganina, Victoria – alone, where a number of our big-name tenants with larger facilities are located.

“Ultimately, this links to our overarching Charter Hall group strategy of addressing climate change, creating high-performing buildings and producing the best possible outcomes for our tenant customers.” 

For more information on Charter Hall, click here

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