Mario Anzuoni / Reuters / Landov

Australia’s rising solar power ‘revolution’

After record-breaking solar project, scientists question why coal-dominated nation ignores renewable innovation

Australian researchers broke the world's solar power efficiency record last month with their design of a novel commercial energy system, raising hopes the fossil-fuel dominated country may someday switch off its reliance on coal.

A team at the University of New South Wales led by professor Martin Green worked with a local company to create a highly efficient solar energy system that uses mirrors to concentrate sunlight onto a central solar panel to generate electricity.

The method is known as concentrator photovoltaics (CPV), and the result is a system with an efficiency of 40 percent, meaning 40 percent of the sunlight hitting the solar panels is converted into energy — the highest such level ever achieved.

Most important, the design uses readily available materials, which makes putting the system into operation easier and cheaper than trying to commercialize more experimental designs.

Green, who is also the director for the Australian Center for Advanced Photovoltaics, has a history of this kind of innovation. In 2011 he and his team built a solar cell that operated with 19.3 percent efficiency, edging out the previous record holder's 18.9 percent efficiency.

Off the grid

This kind of innovation has become the hallmark of the solar energy industry, and it is only going to grow, according to Green.

"What's happening now is that photovoltaics has improved so much recently that it is better at producing electricity than using hot steam," he said. "Solar will become the cheapest way to generate electricity at any scale. The transition is going to occur where it becomes cheaper to use solar than coal."

In the past, lower efficiencies and the risk of power outages on cloudy days meant solar was viewed with suspicion by consumers and industry analysts. But that has changed over the last five years as the cost of installing solar energy systems in Australia has been reduced.

With a huge uptick in the number of people installing solar-powered systems on their roofs, there is less demand on the power grid during periods of peak usage, such as during the afternoon.

This in turn is forcing electricity prices lower and will force a fundamental change in the way developed nations generate electricity, according to Giles Parkinson, editor of RenewEconomy, an Australian website that tracks developments in the solar energy industry.

"If you look at what the mainstream analysts are saying now, they are talking about the solar revolution," he said. "Even the energy distributors in Australia, they are talking about the end of centralization and the rise of the microgrid."

According to Parkinson, solar is now at "grid parity" with traditional sources of electricity. "What we're starting to see now in Australia and around the world is that the large utilities have realized the transition is inevitable, that they can slow it down but they can't stop it," he said.

In Australia the solar industry is supported through subsidies such as the renewable energy target (RET), which requires the government to ensure that 41,000 gigawatt-hours of the country's energy is produced from renewable sources by 2020.

The other function of the RET has been to promote both large- and small-scale investment in renewable projects, which helped grow the Australian renewables sector become a $20 billion industry annually.

But with a government review of the program and uncertainties around its future, large-scale investment in renewable energy projects such as wind farms has ground to a halt.

While no government decision has yet been made about the future of the RET, the uncertainty it created effectively caused the bottom to fall out from the industry, slowing its growth.

Meanwhile, smaller-scale investment — such as rooftop solar systems — has so far escaped the same fate, as consumers who install such a system could receive an upfront payment.

Political struggle

Since coming to power, the conservative Liberal Party government led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott has largely struggled to implement its policy agenda. 

One of its few victories came in the area of climate change, with the repeal of the emissions trading scheme and the carbon tax, which Abbott labeled a threat to economic growth during his time in opposition.

Instead, the coalition government favors a series of policies it calls direct action to lower emissions by 5 percent from 2000 levels by 2020. Effectively, the policy works by paying polluters to cut their emissions.

Since then, the country's approach to environmental and climate policy has made waves internationally.

In one speech made on the sidelines of the Brisbane G-20 in November 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama called for Australia to do more to protect the Great Barrier Reef and fight climate change.

The comments were not well received in Canberra, which worked to keep climate change off the agenda of the international economic summit.

Going nuclear

During late 2014, the trajectory of Australian policy on climate and energy became clear in a now infamous statement made by the prime minister during the opening of a $3.8 billion coal mine in Queensland.

There Abbott told an audience that "coal was good for humanity," effectively tying the country to the coal industry.

In another instance, the Australian government seemed to revive the debate over nuclear power with Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop saying it was an "obvious conclusion" that nuclear offered the best way to bring down emissions.

Australia is one of the world's biggest carbon emitters per capita and is among the worst-performing industrial nations on climate change, according to a report by Germanwatch, a sustainable-development advocacy group.

The country holds 31 percent of the world's uranium supply but does not generate any electricity through nuclear because of a ban on the use of nuclear technology. The country so far has only a single reactor in a small research facility at Lucas Heights in Sydney's southwest, primarily used in the production of medical equipment.

While the call for a debate has been welcomed by business groups and some academics and engineers who see modern nuclear technology as safe and the best method to lower emissions, it has faced objections from environmentalists.

Sen. Christine Milne, the leader of the Australian Greens Party, said the Abbot's nuclear position is "embarrassing" in the eyes of the world.

"You can't address climate change using heavily centralized, obsolete, hideously risky fission reactors," Milne said. "It's a humiliating stance. Australia needs to phase out fossil fuels and move to 100 percent renewable energy for the climate — and for our economy."

In response, Abbott has said that he would welcome a debate over the role of nuclear power and that his government would not provide the funding needed to develop a large-scale nuclear project.

Those such as Green who are at the forefront of the solar revolution argue Australia seems to be struggling hard against an inevitability.

"You have to have some type of plan for the future rather than trying to hold on to the past," said Green. "Solar is going to be a big industry in every country. The present Australian government is trying to keep things the way they are as long as they can rather than embracing the advantage of the new technology."

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