Doing their bit to tackle global warming is probably high on most people’s agenda nowadays but equally after two years of COVID-19 they are also pining for a sun-kissed summer holiday. Trying to deliver both these outcomes is part of the challenge facing Owen Hughes, Energy Officer at Portsmouth City Council, as he leads a project aiming to put in 1.2MW of solar PV power at the bustling council-owned Portsmouth International Port.
The aim is to complete the job by the end of this September. “It is a busy working port with ferries sailing every day off to sunnier climes,” he explains. “We have to work around those restrictions but hopefully with holidays approaching we don’t get too much in the way.”
The project, managed by the council’s in-house Energy Services team, involves putting 600kw of solar panels on the roofs of buildings across the port including the main terminal as well as a five-metre tall 600kw solar carport canopy covering the car ferry queuing lanes and driver check-in kiosks. When in place the 2,660 solar panels will contribute around 35% of the site’s power.
In addition, as well as generating carbon-free power, the solar canopies will provide shade for cars waiting to board the ferries; allowing them to stay cooler for longer, without having to run their engines. To maximise the electricity generated by the solar panels the team is also installing a 1.5MW hours battery energy storage system. This will allow excess generation stored during the day to be discharged at night when the Port’s energy demand is still significant.
A grid connection aims to bring in another income stream for the Port and help finance the project and others going forward. Portsmouth City Council has already built up a shining portfolio of solar projects in the city installing over 6MW of PV across 380 sites including the Civic Offices building back in 2016.
Portsmouth International Port, with only a small amount of solar already on site, was therefore a viable candidate for more development. It also fitted in well with its own commitments to be net-zero carbon by 2030 and zero emissions by 2050. The solar on site had not been maximised before because of various grid export restraints. However, recent upgrade work at the nearby Horndean grid supply point meant installation capacity could be increased at the port.
Surveys and studies
The solar installation work started this February, but the planning began back in 2020. “Various surveys and feasibility studies have taken up much of the previous 18 months,” Hughes explains. “The initial work looked at half hour electricity consumption data from the site and software analysis of what capacity could be installed there in a best-case scenario. We ran some financial appraisals off the back of the data to see if it was justifiable and I could bring it to my manager and the accountants! We utilise Public Works Loans where we borrow at quite a low rate, but it needs to add up. It did and the project was on.”
The next stage was to start approaching potential suppliers and contractors. The Council had an existing Supply and Installation Solar PV Panel Systems and Associate Equipment Multi Contractor Framework. “Previous projects had been on a lower scale, so we had to create a Sublot to that framework. It allowed us to run a speculative tender process to see if there were contractors on the framework which had previous experience of MW plus installation, large scale batteries and car canopy installations,” Hughes explains.
The contractor who ticked all the boxes was solar installer Custom Solar, which won a two-stage contract. The first to further confirm the feasibility of the project such as designs, grid capacity, grid connection, which took three months to secure, and planning permission which took four months. The second part was design and build, which is now well under way on site. “It’s on track. We have a weekly meeting on site with Custom Solar, Port staff, the Clerk of Works and myself,” says Hughes. “It’s good to meet in person and get regular updates and everyone is working well together. There are no surprises really as we are all aware of the work which needs done but it is good to see the work in the flesh.”
At present he is seeing the car canopy installation, which initially involved the digging of excavation pits, now being filled in and waiting for steel columns and the canopies and lighting to be put in place. The rooftop PV has been mounted across four of the six buildings and the battery storage is to be installed later this summer.
“With the canopy work we had to amend the programme so that the majority of the car queuing lanes were left open to allow passengers to get on or off,” Hughes says. “We are moving from pit to pit rather than closing off huge sections at one go. We are ensuring that existing signage is still clear. People have not been on a real holiday for two years and we don’t want to ruin it by sending someone to Jersey instead of Bilbao or vice-versa!”
Hughes says the project so far has shown him the importance and strength of working in an in-house team. “Our team of port and civil engineers, building surveyors and clerk of works have been invaluable,” he states. “We are up with the leading authorities on solar and we want to continue showing how well we can do this. It’s very rewarding knowing you are doing your bit and making a difference.”
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