With a team of renewable energy experts who care about making solar projects cheaper, faster and smarter, 5B is reinventing solar energy from the ground up. By Brent Balinski.

It is the week of launch day at solar system innovator 5B’s new headquarters and clean tech campus at Mascot, a few kilometres south of Sydney’s CBD. After a quick look at its warehouse and proving ground, we walk past a big pile of unboxed monitors and desks that are yet to have chairs wheeled under them. The mood is friendly but urgent. There is a place to get into shape, an event for hundreds fast-approaching, and stuff everywhere.

Last year was a breakout one for a company moving at a rate that guarantees this article – written in mid-December – won’t include important recent events. 5B gained a presence in three new countries in 2021, is in the middle of a $50m capital raise at the time of writing, and has just announced that it has acquired its manufacturing partner since 2018, IXL Solar.

“We used to manufacture internally three years ago and then IXL took it all on,” explains CEO Chris McGrath, who co-founded the company in 2013 with Eden Tehan. “ And now we’re kind of bringing it back in.”

He adds that though it will be taking on assembly of its ground-mounted solar arrays – which are rapidly deployable and then redeployable, and which fold and unfold, piano accordion-like – the vision is not to be a volume producer itself. It’s about helping enable a massive, planet-wide shift towards abundant, cheap solar energy. Rather than a pure manufacturer or designer or builder or some combination of those, 5B sees itself as a technology company, and the enabler of an ecosystem of components, logistics, deployment, assembly, operations and maintenance, and deployment partners.

“To stand up manufacturing partners when you don’t have your own internal expertise is really hard,” McGrath adds. “You know, you’d try and take someone to do something that you don’t know how to do yourself. So we kind of always maintained our best-in-class example internally, but it’s small-scale.”

The company’s system has some similarities to prefabricated construction, which has been blurring the boundaries between manufacturing and the building sector in recent years. The units 5B produces, called Mavericks, transfer the labour away from the construction site and into a factory. The prewired steel-and-concrete arrays with solar panels (the latest version has 48-50 kilowatt capacity) stack four per 40-foot shipping container, and greatly cut installation time, according to 5B.

This is no small thing for utility-scale, off-grid sites, for example mining clients looking to decarbonise their energy supply in remote locations, says Chief Technology Officer Simeon Baker-Finch.

“One person in an air-conditioned telehandler can deploy a solar farm,” he explains. “At the deployment of a 5B Maverick solution, you won’t see hundreds of people scurrying around like ants in the 40-degree heat trying to construct a solar array. When you get to really large-scale scale projects, it has benefits that you don’t realise. With the conventional alternative, ‘Where are the toilets going for 4,000 people? Where’s their kitchen? Are you giving them wifi?’”

As an illustration of 5B’s growth, in mid-December its headcount stood at 188, up from roughly 30 staff in August 2020. It counts 52 projects completed and 32 megawatts deployed using its products so far, but as in the example above, single projects in the scale of gigawatts are where the future lies.

Manufacturing is not something that needs to be done at massive volumes within 5B’s own factories to get to such individual projects, but manufacturing is nevertheless a vital enabler.

Factory and field

Sun Cable’s 20GW Australia-Asia PowerLink (AAPL) project was announced in 2019, and was memorably described as “completely batshit insane” by Atlassian co-founder and Sun Cable backer Mike Cannon-Brookes. He went on to add that the “engineering all checks out”, and 5B has an important role in the project. The Mascot-headquartered company is the preferred technology supplier for the 20 gigawatt solar farm portion of the AAPL project near Elliot in the Northern Territory.

A transmission cable running for hundreds of kilometres to Darwin, a big battery at the city of between 36 and 42 gigawatt hours, and a 4,200km undersea cable to Singapore are also planned. According to Sun Cable it could provide up to 15% of Singapore’s electricity needs, and will be producing power for Darwin in 2026 and for export to the Asian city state the year after. 5B would set up a Maverick assembly site at Darwin for the $30bn-plus project, for which construction is scheduled to begin in 2024.

There is a wide gap between the size of solar projects 5B has supplied for so far and AAPL, and a big automation and innovation drive lie ahead. The IXL Solar acquisition and the new R&D facilities at Mascot are important in this. Having shorter distance between manufacturing products, testing, and designing is a huge benefit in industrialising, for 5B themselves now, and to hand over to manufacturing partners later.

“Removing the trip wires, a rapid failure, rapid feedback loop back to the product design, which is really critical, as opposed to a pure manufacturing capability,” adds Baker-Finch of what having a pilot manufacturing line, R&D and test facilities at the one site brings.

The company is on “a pretty aggressive cost-out and optimisation curve” and past the “low-hanging fruit” with testing.

A site at Kurnell, about a half-hour drive away, was the previous proving ground for Mavericks. Baker-Finch remarks: “It’s a bit of a hassle to get there. On my first day on the job I went over. It’s not that easy to get through a lot of iterations. And we know that we just need to get through a lot to optimise.”

He adds that there is a lot of work to do to improve everything from cost competitiveness, to embedded emissions, to evolving the product to be compatible with automation equipment.

“So the advantage of having a co-located prototyping workshop and then pilotline-level automation tools is valuable, and I don’t think we could achieve what we want to achieve without it.”

In terms of the field, 5B has a roadmap in place for robotics to assist handling and installation. Other R&D work involves simulating projects and the logistics around them, as well as collaborations with University of NSW on topics such as understanding thermal management and solar farm performance. (Baker-Finch is a rare ANU alum on the technical team, which has a heavy representation of ex-UNSW engineers.)

When asked about possible copycats for what is not an obviously complex product, Baker-Finch says that products and processes are patented, with trade secrets adding another layer of IP protection. Then there’s the speed at which the company is operating, building an ecosystem outside itself – as well as a rich store of intelligence and expertise within it – that would keep them ahead of anyone trying to copy them.

“With the field robotics and automation we’ll just continue to evolve our IP in the machine that builds the machine,” Baker-Finch explains. “And then, with this yield optimisation layer, the machine that builds the machine that builds the machine and so on.”

The gigawatt economy

Commenting on the trillions to be invested in infrastructure and 5B’s role in this, McGrath says: “What the solar market in the world needs, and what the solar market will build, is 30, 40, 50 terawatts … over the next 30 years. We can’t afford to be replicating the industrial capability that already exists, just to try to make our slice of the pie bigger. We’re very much ‘bigger pie’ mentality. For us, that means knowing what we do well and then collaborating with people who do [what they do] well.”

The accelerating rate at which new solar infrastructure is being created is clear. In 2012, the first utility-scale solar farm in Australia, Greenough River Solar Farm, was built (using IXL Solar frames). Its capacity was 10 megawatts, or one-hundredth of one gigawatt. Australia’s total large-scale solar capacity in 2020 was 3.9 gigawatts, or less than a fifth of what Sun Cable hopes to build at one site alone.

Carbon border taxes for exports created with high-emissions fuels will make large-scale renewable energy more appealing to industrial businesses in our region, and will likely encourage investments in high-voltage cables attached to clean energy-generating infrastructure.

After years of fossil fuels being among the nation’s top exports, the optimists believe Australia can remain an energy-dealing powerhouse. It would be particularly welcome news if you believe we missed out on the last solar boom.

Sometimes UNSW’s development of PERC solar cell technology – which now represents more generation capacity added worldwide than any other source – is cited as a squandered national opportunity. About 70% of the world’s solar panels are made in China, with just one manufacturer here.

Does the 5B team see the new solar era, which they’re helping enable, as one that will mean a lot of manufacturing activity? Yes and no. Again, manufacturing is an important part of the mission, but producing everything in-house isn’t.

“It’s about enabling all those people who make the current infrastructure or are interested in getting into solid infrastructure … a chance to do it by providing the recipe,” explains Baker-Finch of 5B’s approach, which they plan to roll out around the world.

He adds that there is “a pretty good opportunity” to localise manufacturing in service of the burgeoning utility-scale and emerging gigawatt-scale Australian solar market. The opportunity rests, according to Baker-Finch, in the automation of 5B Maverick manufacturing and the development of a local supply chain, including by using locally produced green steel.

McGrath agrees that this era of solar energy represents opportunities through Australian green steel. The main mission for 5B, though, is helping drive down the cost of solar energy, with a $15 per megawatt-hour price attached to projects their “base case” for 2030.

“We will have a significant amount of local manufacturing in Australia through partners, because it will make sense over time,” he says. “But as to how much that happens and why, for us it’s more about making solar really cheap, get it into the world faster, and that opens economic opportunities for countries and economies. And all of the real value-added, jobs and economic growth, comes from what we do with that energy, not necessarily how you made it.”