Solar still on the horizon
As a country famed for sunburnt lands and abundant sunshine, Australia has great potential for a successful solar energy industry, yet is still falling behind countries with less natural resources. Stephanie Kok reports.
In the most recent Federal budget, the Australian Government allocated just $1.5b to solar energy, an industry that according to renewable energy experts is in need of immediate and significant funding and government support.
In order to make solar technologies competitive against the polluting fossil fuels and other renewable energy technologies, a significant amount of investment still needs to be made, as solar is trailing behind other energy sources.
“The scale of investment needed for concentrating solar power down to the levels of say, wind power today, will be of the orders of 5-10,000 MW and several billion dollars of investment incentives,” said Project Leader of CSIRO’s National Solar Energy Centre, Wes Stein.
Chris Riedy, Research Director of the Institute for Sustainable Futures, says more should be done to make full use of the abundant natural resources in Australia, as the country is in a good position to develop industry leadership around renewable energy and solar technologies.
“We’ve got some real natural advantages in Australia that they don’t have in Europe in terms of our access to solar resources and to wind resources and to geothermals. We’re really blessed with great renewable energy resources so that means we should be able to deliver renewable energy probably cheaper than Europe would be able to,” he said.
Similarly, Mr Stein says that pursuing solar energy is best for Australia, given the natural resources in relation to sunlight.
“The solar resource is so huge in Australia and you’ll never run out of sites,” said Mr Stein. “I think there are so many energy options but Australia can’t pursue all of them, it’s actually gotta pursue the ones that are best for Australia and given our solar resource, solar should be one of them.”
Yet while other countries are investing heavily in alternative energy in an attempt to combat climate change, the Government is still backing the notion of ‘clean coal’, and Carbon Capture and Storage programs which have proven to be ineffective in reducing greenhouse emissions.
“It’s really supporting the coal industry to develop new technologies so that they can become cleaner, when they’ve been earning a lot of money for a long time and have known that climate change is a big problem for a long time,” said Mr Riedy.
This is despite the economic advantages of renewable energy technologies such as solar and geothermal. According to a DESERTEC-Australia researcher quoted by Newnet, these technologies will become rapidly cheaper over time, and more reliable, due to innovation.
Richard Corkish, Head of the School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering at UNSW, remains doubtful about Carbon Capture and Storage.
“I hope it works…because while we’re putting a lot of resources into that, then we have to understand that we’re diverting those resources from other potential uses of those resources and we’re putting a lot of investment in the expectation that it’s going to work and at the moment, we don’t know,” he said.
According to Greens MP John Kaye, the budget is a step forward for renewable energy, however the $2b investment in clean coal makes it still too supportive of the coal industry.
“Our concern remains that that’s highly speculative research, money that should be going into solar and wind. Instead, it’s going into clean coal which is very unlikely to ever return any value on the investment being made,” he said.
Despite this, Mr Corkish said that any amount allocated to solar is more than the industry ever imagined.
“I’m very happy to have the $1.5 billion to [solar] renewable energy, and that’s bigger and better than we’ve ever dreamt of having before in previous budgets,” he said.
The Government’s budget and plans to build up to four large solar plants are seen as positive steps compared to the movements to block solar power development by the Howard government, yet it is still not enough to make solar competitive against other forms of technology, and on a global scale.
“Certainly the recent announcements are showing the sorts of foresight that I think that the solar energy industry needs in Australia,” said Mr Stein. “I’d say one other thing though, just to build four big solar plants is not going to be enough to kick start an industry in Australia. Four big plants will not be enough to create the critical mass needed for plants to keep on just rolling out after that.”
Mr Riedy is hopeful about the change of government, and highlights the latest budget as a good sign.
“Now, hopefully things have changed under the Rudd Government. They’ve only had two budgets since they’ve come in, so they haven’t had a lot of time to announce things themselves, so it’s great to see something in the second budget that is a very significant support for renewable energy,” he said.
In NSW, there is also concern that the State Government’s support of coal will mean that the state will miss out on potential funding for solar development, as there has been insufficient support for other renewable energy technologies in the past.
“NSW has about 3% of the nation’s installed wind capacity. We ought to have about 30% of the nation’s wind capacity based both on population and on the quality of the wind resource in NSW. NSW government cannot see beyond coal and burning coal to produce electricity, so what we’ve seen increasingly in NSW has been a set of policies that are based around encouraging coal,” said Mr Kaye. “That means that we are likely to miss out on a lot of potential investment value of the Federal Government’s funding.”
European countries such as Denmark and Germany have already invested large amounts in renewable energy production, with Germany holding the title of the global leader in solar-generated electricity, despite its limited natural solar resource.
Germany’s Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety states in its Annual Report on Research Funding in the Renewable Energies Sector, that the German government spent 161.2 million euros (approximately $277 million) on solar energy in 2008 alone, emphasising its dedication to the technology right now, unlike the Australian Government’s $1.5 billion over six years.
Given Australia’s potential to become a world leader in solar energy production, it is still falling behind the mark, in the wake of countries less likely and with less natural sunlight. Some hope seems to remain with the Rudd government, with a number of policies aimed at making better use of natural resources, however the strong attachment to coal will prove to be detrimental.
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