Fortescue Invests in Clean Energy: Considers Australian Factory for New Solar Technology

There’s a new player in the clean energy game – Fortescue Metals, one of Australia’s largest mining companies. The company has recently taken 60% ownership of a Dutch solar power company, High yield Energy Technologies (HyET) Group, and is undertaking a feasibility study into building an Australian factory for its unique photovoltaic technology.

The deal, the first investment of note by Fortescue’s clean energy subsidiary, Fortescue Future Industries (FFI), will give Fortescue inside knowledge of HyET’s “Powerfoil” product – which holds photovoltaic cells within flexible polymer sheets rather than conventional rigid glass solar panels.

The Powerfoil technology demonstrated on a rooftop in Maylasia. Source: https://www.hyetsolar.com/

Fortescues’ foray into clean technology

Back in August this year, Fortescue Metals chairman Andrew Forrest vowed to use record iron ore profits to carve a future in clean energy. Fortescue Future Industries (FFI) is charged with diversifying the miner into clean energy, and now the company is pursuing some of the industry’s most ambitious green plans with its foray into renewable energy and green hydrogen.

In addition to the Powerfoil product, the new deal will also give Fortescue control of a HyET subsidiary that is investigating ways to store hydrogen.

“Green” hydrogen is made when renewable energy is used to electrolyse water (i.e. separate the hydrogen and oxygen atoms). Although there is no seaborne trade of the commodity yet, Fortescue plans to make it the world’s most traded seaborne commodity.

Fortescue plans to produce 15 million tonnes of green hydrogen by 2030 and is studying a hydrogen project in Tasmania’s Bell Bay.

Fortescue’s Australian Powerfoil ambition

It’s news that’s sure to excite not only the clean energy industry but also Australia’s long-declining manufacturing industry – Fortescue’s ambition to build a Powerfoil factory on Australian shores. FFI chief executive Julie Shuttleworth, spoke of the proposed plan.

“The addition of HyET Solar and HyET Hydrogen to our portfolio of FFI companies builds on our commitment to develop technologies needed to tackle emissions and global warming,” she said.

“We have commenced the design study for a 1 gigawatt Powerfoil factory in Australia and at this scale, we aim to rapidly drive costs down at a greater rate than is achievable with conventional Solar PV [photovoltaic] technology.”

Powerfoil technology: what we know

Powerfoil technology is a unique thin film photovoltaic product that holds cells within flexible polymer sheets.

Contrary to the production of glass solar panels, Powerfoil is produced roll-to-roll from raw materials in one factory. Starting with simple aluminum foil and precursor gases, different micron thick layers are deposited that efficiently convert light into electricity. The active layers are then encapsulated in conventional inexpensive polymers sheets forming a foil of 0.5 mm thick.

The result? A flexible, lightweight, and inexpensive solar power product. The company website sahred the following description;

“Our modules are can be attached to almost any surface, are only 0.5mm thick and weigh less then 0.6kg/m². Our roll to roll manufacturing process allows for large scale production at extremely low cost. Powerfoil is ideally suited for building integrated solar, for mobile solar, for floating solar and for large scale utility solar.”

Listed benefits include:

  • Inexpensive PV modules
  • Low balance of system cost
  • High energy yield 
  • Maximum coverage of PV modules
  • Enables vertical surfaces
  • Easy-to-clean surface; low maintenance
  • Degradation rate <1% /year average over lifetime).

The Powerfoil product successfully passed Photovoltaic safety and design tests conducted by TÜV Rheinland back in 2012. The product is designed to withstand all sorts of extreme weather conditions and safety issues that a module likely will encounter throughout its lifespan.

The early-stage technology has been deployed to a very limited extent in the Netherlands, including on top of fuel tanks owned by storage company Royal Vopak, which is a shareholder in HyET.

HyET’s technology was developed by Dutch inventor Rombout Swanborn, who made his fortune developing technology that helps oil companies to separate saleable products from waste.

“We are incredibly pleased to have joined forces with Fortescue Future Industries,” he said in a statement.

“Not only does this enable us to contribute much more effectively to the creation of a renewable energy infrastructure, but now we also can strongly increase the scale of our activities – two important goals since we started up our companies.”

Environmentalists Applaud Fortescue’s Plan to Eradicate ‘Scope 3’ Emission by 2040

In a plan that’s been labelled as both “challenging” and an “embarrassment” for major rivals BHP and Rio Tinto, Fortescue has vowed to eradicate its customers’ carbon emissions by 2040.

It’s an ambitious move that has been cheered by environmentalists, but it certainly won’t be an easy undertaking. FMG estimated its scope 3 (customers) emissions in the 12 months to June 30 amounted to 252 million tonnes, of which 246 million tonnes was attributable to steelmaking.

The plan includes converting Fortescue’s fleet of ore carriers to green ammonia-powered vessels

In a statement this week, chairman Forrest said green hydrogen was key to making emissions-free steel while providing a renewable fuel for its fleet of eight iron ore carriers.

The Grattan Institute’s energy program director, Tony Wood, described FMG’s plan as an “amazing challenge”.

“If it was just about anybody else making that announcement you’d take it with a grain of salt but … this organisation has the commitment and the final resources to do things that other people wouldn’t even attempt,” he said.

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