The Great Solar Disappointment

by Fran Molloy

Endless kilometres of sun-baked desert stretch across Australia’s vast interior, with temperatures often climbing over forty degrees Celsius. Two-fifths of this country is classed as desert, where little grows and few want to live.

Indeed, Western Australia alone is eighty percent arid or semi-arid desert – and as centuries of poor farming techniques generate rising salinity across the land, more of the state is turning into desert. Though the state’s wheat belt is shrinking, its salt-crusted remains are the perfect place to harvest the relentless rays from the sun.

We don’t even need much of it; according to energy physicist Dr Mark Diesendorf, who is now Deputy Director of the Institute of Environmental Studies at University of New South Wales, just 50 kilometres of solar collectors could generate enough to meet Australia’s entire current electricity demand. In fact, solar photovoltaic (PV) systems on domestic roofs alone could provide at least half of residential electricity demand.

Instead, giant mining trucks – some the height of a two-storey house – scour the baked red surfaces of Australia’s deserts, scratching out tonnes of million-year old mineral deposits and, in the main, shipping them offshore.

Energy needs

Stanford University physicist Weston Hermann’s Exergy Project calculates the earth’s energy use in a complex array of charts and formulae.

Hermann has worked out that the energy from the sun that hits the surface of the earth in one year is 3.8 million exajoules.

He’s also calculated that energy is more than double the amount that could ever be extracted from all non-renewable resources (fossil fuels, gas and mined uranium) combined.

We know how to get hold of it, too. Big solar electricity plants like the 97 megawatt Sarnia Photovoltaic Power Plant in Canada (currently the world’s largest) uses active solar collection with photovoltaic panels to convert light into electric current.

And for the last twenty years or so, concentrated solar power plants using lenses and mirrors on a tracking system to focus a large area of sunlight into a small beam have generated much larger energy results.

These include the 150 MW Solnova Solar Power Station in Spain, and the nine solar plants that make up the 350 MW Solar Energy Generating Systems (SEGS) installation in California’s Mojave Desert.

Solar is humanity’s last great energy hope – and we’ve worked out how to get it to deliver us from evil fossil fuels. But so far, the great hope is something of a fizzer.

Despite devouring millions of years of the planet’s stored energy in fossil fuels in just two centuries, with the flood of oil greeting early drillers replaced by hard-to-reach undersea deposits and with coal deposits being extracted ever-more rapidly, we’re still reliant on non-renewable sources for most of our energy needs.

We might have the solar technology sorted – but we haven’t quite worked out how to cut out the middleman so that we can replace coal-fired power releasing ancient deposits of solar energy, with the energy that lands on the planet straight from the sun.

And it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the middlemen controlling the lucrative fossil-fuel economy are a big part of the reason that solar energy hasn’t taken off.

Baseloads and Billionaires

There’s plenty of nay-sayers with powerful energy connections who argue that solar doesn’t have the baseload to deliver our energy needs.

Continuous baseload power which operates 24/7 year-round is essential, they argue. But continuous baseload only exists now because it costs too much to shut coal-burning power stations down overnight, says Dr David Mills, solar scientist and co-founder of solar-thermal company Ausra.

In a recent presentation at the Australian Solar Energy Society’s annual conference, Mills argued that a combination of power technologies including solar (both concentrating and PV) with thermal and battery storage and using peaking hydro-electricity and wind power would meet all of Australia’s energy needs.

But because renewable energy is seen as too expensive, unable to meet baseload needs and a threat to influential forces in mining and politics, there’s no move towards structural change in Australia’s energy industry.

The sad thing is that there’s plenty of money to be made from solar energy – and we are not just blesses with huge expanses of sunlit soil, we also have the brains: Australia’s solar researchers lead the world.

With suffocating government policy and a hugely powerful coal lobby, this country isn’t translating research into practice – but other countries are.
China’s third-richest businessman is billionaire Dr Zhengrong Shi – a 48-year old former engineering student who moved to Australia in 1989, holding a master’s degree in optics from Shanghai. Shi did his PhD at the UNSW School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering, studying under Professors who still teach there.

By 1995, Shi had been appointed Deputy Research Director of a UNSW affiliate developing next-generation solar technology. And in 2001, he moved back to China to found his own solar-cell start-up company, Sun-Tech.

Sales boomed as demand for photovoltaic panels increased worldwide and by 2005, Suntech Power was the first private Chinese company listed on New York’s Stock Exchange.

By 2010, Suntech was the world’s largest solar cell manufacturer, selling 1.6 GW of photovoltaic products a year – and employing some of UNSW’s best former researchers.

Policy Hijack

Dr Guy Pearse is a Research Fellow at the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland who is focused on energy policy and economics.
A former Liberal Party political adviser and lobbyist, Pearse left politics after his 2005 doctoral thesis research uncovered damning evidence that the carbon lobby had hijacked Australia’s greenhouse policy.

Australia’s response to climate change has been hugely influenced by the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network, he says, with policies now introduced to double coal exports and increase Australia’s greenhouse emissions for at least another decade.

Political machinations are the reason solar energy hasn’t taken off in Australia, he says. “There’s no incentive for that technology to be rolled out on scale. The renewable sector is getting enough crumbs from the table in subsidies to keep them profitable – and has become utterly reliant on them.”

Those ‘crumbs from the table’ are in the form of the renewable energy target, which Pearse says should really be called a renewable electricity target.

“The 20 percent renewable energy target just addresses electricity, which is responsible for only a third of our emissions,” he says, noting the remainder comes from gas, petrol and diesel.

But despite these seemingly-high targets for renewable energy, Pearse says that growing fossil fuel exports means the share of renewables (mainly solar and wind) in our total energy production will still be under 2 percent of our total energy production by 2020.

Australia’s mythical 20 percent renewable energy by 2020 target introduced in 2007 includes some sleazy budget sleight-of-hand, Pearse claims.

“A bunch of state-based mandates which were lumped together to come up with a 20 percent mandate,” he says. “A lot of that 20 percent is made up from repackaging.”

Australia’s lazy five percent emission reduction target isn’t much help either, he says, comprising more sleight-of-hand, achieved by importing offshore carbon credits and “messing around” with the way carbon is accounted for in forestry and farming.

“Without any major requirements from new renewables or emission reduction, there’s no incentive for dramatic structural change in energy production within Australia’s borders.”

Carbon Tax ‘a joke’

By 2020, Australia’s hotly-debated carbon tax, which aims to encourage investment in cleaner technology and the faster phase-out of dirtier technology, will save about 159 million tons a year of carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gases.

It’s a joke, Pearse says, with coal-mining outstripping emission reductions at a rapid pace. He says just one example is the large three-mine coal-mining operation in Queensland recently purchased by Indian mining company JVK which will produce 84 million tons of coal a year.

“In one year, that one mining project in Queensland will produce roughly double the amount of CO2 of the whole clean energy future package.”

More mining companies are battling it out over Queensland’s coal deposits, he adds.

Adani is proposing a 60 million-ton a year mine, Miejin want to put in 80 million tons and Xstrata Coal are proposing a 30 million tonne mine for Wandoan in South West Queensland.

“No- one has heard of any of these mega mines in Queensland – and they absolutely dwarf what we’re hoping to achieve through a carbon price.”

Despite ambitious renewable energy targets and the subsidies for solar panels, the renewables share of Australia’s energy production won’t go up in the next decade, he says, because there’s no incentive to invest in its infrastructure.

“Solar is one of the most expensive renewable energy options, with large-scale wind power the cheapest and even biomass-related technologies cheaper.”

Despite the technology costs falling dramatically, solar power isn’t cheaper than coal or even wind. And with all of the investment required to meet Australia’s renewable energy already made – much of it invested in windfarms – no-one will build solar plants.

“You wouldn’t come in to Australia and look at the current policy framework and invest in a massive new solar thermal power station because you won’t be able to sell the electricity,” he says. “You’re competing against coal – which is cheaper.”

He accuses the renewable energy sector of having a welfare mentality. “They have become comfortable with the small-scale stuff because they can make a profit, their share price can gradually rise and they can fill this small niche. But it suppresses their ambition. They’ve become too dependent and renewable companies aren’t asking why our targets aren’t more ambitious because they’re not going to bite that hand that feeds them.”

Polluter Resistance

Australia hasn’t adopted solar as a primary energy source partly because of the resistance of the big greenhouse gas polluters, particularly the coal industry which promotes coal-fired electricity generation.

There’s a reasonable amount of research funding in solar energy, but Dr Mark Diesendorf says that’s because it’s not so threatening to incumbent power providers, unlike policies to build the market for renewable energy like wind, biomass and solar.

Diesendorf believes that there’s currently little else but Australia’s somewhat questionable renewable energy target to drive the renewable energy market.

He says the solar flagships program will fund one large solar PV power station and one large concentrated solar thermal power station by 2015, but these are just demonstrations.

“With nothing to drive large-scale solar seriously beyond those two projects, it’s very hard to avoid the conclusion that the government is still under the thumb of the big greenhouse polluters, particularly the coal industry, who don’t wish to see a clean, sustainable energy future in Australia.”

State government policy on small-scale domestic solar has been a disaster from start to end, he says. “The previous NSW state government wanted to make a splash so they set a feed-in tariff that was ridiculously high, causing a boom and bust situation, where state governments set caps on the solar they would allow to be funded under that scheme.”

Most Australian states have now terminated feed-in tariffs, he says.

“This exercise really showed that the technology is ready to be mass-produced, but you have to get the policy right. Now have no feed-in tariffs at all, so anyone who buys a solar PV system and attaches it to the grid now, gives their electricity to their retailer who then sells it on at retail price and makes a profit.”

Worldwide, demand for domestic solar systems and the price of an installed solar system dropped in 2010 by 20 percent globally (with the modules alone dropping by 40 percent).

“Within a few years, solar will be competitive at the point of use, which might retail at 25c per kw, but the large-scale solar power stations have to compete with the wholesale price of coal-fired electricity, which might be 5c per kilowatt.”

Costs of transmission and distribution add to the price, he says, with solar’s cost worked out by taking the capital cost of the solar system, spreading over its lifetime, plus adding minimal maintenance costs.

False Price of Coal

Mark Diesendorf explains that solar is a lot more expensive than coal – because the price of coal power does not include the costs of the environmental, health, social and economic damage caused by burning coal.

“Coal is literally dirt cheap, but burning this dirt that includes bits of organic material compressed for a hundred million years underground is highly polluting. A carbon price of $23 a ton is a small fraction of the cost that coal imposes on the community, but it’s a start.”

Only around seven percent of Australians have solar hot water, because solar hot water has been competing with very cheap off-peak coal-fired electric hot water, with many coal-fired stations are kept running between midnight and dawn, when there is little other energy demand, just to heat domestic hot water. “Coal-fired stations are very slow to start up, you can’t just shut them down overnight,” he says.

“But finally the phasing-out of off-peak electric hot water is underway in some states.”

Slower than the Glaciers

He predicts that within three to five years, people will be installing PV systems even without feed-in tariffs, because global demand has pushed the cost price for systems so low that they are becoming cost effective.

“But residential electricity is less than a quarter of Australia’s total electricity. We still need large scale systems, big wind farms, big solar power stations, but we have nothing to drive large-scale solar production, unlike Spain which now has feed-in tariffs for large-scale solar and are among the world’s leaders in big solar.”

Our slow adoption of large scale solar projects can’t be pinned on a research gap, Diesendorf says – he believes that there’s little political pressure to cut funds to solar energy research.

“Solar research is less threatening to the coal industry because there’s a big time gap between research and having a product on the market,” says Diesendorf.

But despite Australia’s clear research leadership on solar energy – holding world records for several types of solar cells, including a 43 percent conversion efficiency for stacked solar cells – we haven’t translated that knowledge commercially into becoming world leaders in the solar market.

Solid evidence supporting the phenomenon of global warming caused by human activities, is being produced by universities and research centres across the world at an alarming rate – meanwhile Australia’s change to renewable energy continues to be excruciatingly slow.

“I’d say it was glacially slowly, but even glaciers are speeding up,” Diesendorf says blackly.


This article was first published in the Spring 2011 issue of Fast Thinking magazine.