Solar electricity in Australia

Bill Parker, Australia and New Zealand Solar Energy Society - ANSZES - (updated by David Hopwood)

The challenge for Australia has always been to take clean energy inventions - such as those coming from the solar PV and Concentrating Solar Power (CSP)/Concentrating Solar Thermal (CST) sectors - to market, in a very large country, where most of the population lives in the southeast corner, and which has substantial reserves of coal.

Is PV still a niche market in Australia?

One early market for PV in Australia was the telecommunications system. The remoteness of much of Australia meant that powering and servicing microwave repeater stations across the outback was expensive with conventional fuels. That system is now predominantly powered by solar photovoltaics (PV) – a successful early niche market.

The same has been partly true for the mining and resources sectors, where it is not uncommon to see railroad signalling and gas pipeline maintenance systems powered by PV.

But to what extent are solar technologies - and other renewables -  seriously being considered in Australia outside of these niche applications?

Some Federal and State policies now support solar

More recently, the Federal and State Governments have helped to finance the uptake of PV both in the cities and in the remote outback. Together with Federal Government rebates, various State governments have set up feed in tariffs, but there is currently no commonality across the country.

Most schemes are based on exported electricity only, but one (the Australian Capital Territory), is based on gross production. Plenty of discussion is in progress following a Private Member’s Bill introduced into the Senate in May 2008. The Bill is still “alive” but has been referred to the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) following a Senate enquiry. The enquiry had over 170 submissions and received evidence from several groups and individuals. The majority of submissions were in favour of a national feed-in-tariff, based on gross generation.

The referral to COAG has been seen as a stumbling block, but there has been comment from the industry that “one size does not fit all” and that to copy the German system for example might not be workable. Compared to Germany, where a successful feed-in-tariff has been in operation for some years, Australia is a very diverse country without a comprehensive national grid and numerous small diesel and gas grids supplying small towns in remote locations. There are yet more remote communities and homesteads that will never have any grid access. There are many climates, from the tropical north to the temperate south.

The present rebate arrangements are subject to government decisions made from time to time about funding levels. The present grid connect rebate of A$8000 has been reduced in scope by an income means test, and this has had the effect of reducing system sizes purchased, as well as the market itself. The rebate scheme that enables PV systems to be installed in remote locations comes to and end in 2009 and until recently there appeared to be no longer-term plan in place despite Australia’s reliance on imported diesel.

Australia's Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme

However, change could be afoot. At the Federal level, the Rudd Government has just released a white paper which outlines the final design of Australia's Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (including a Cap and Trade scheme), as well as decisions on other significant climate change programs. This White Paper sets out the Government's policy in relation to two major elements of its mitigation strategy: a medium term target range for national emissions, and the final design of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. These elements are placed in the context of Australia's efforts to help shape a global solution, and a range of supporting and complementary climate change initiatives.

As part of the white paper, The Government has confirmed its commitment to a long-term goal of reducing Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions to 60% below 2000 levels by 2050. And launching the white paper, Minister for Climate Change and Water, Senator Penny Wong also stressed that renewables would play their part in the solution: “Australians have made it clear that they understand the challenge of climate change and they want a government that will one of the hottest and driest countries on earth, Australia’s environment and economy will be one of the hardest and fastest hit by climate change if we don’t act now. Through an unprecedented investment in energy efficiency, a four-fold expansion in renewable energy and the introduction of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, the Rudd Government is getting on with the job of tackling climate change. This is all about creating the jobs of the future. The CPRS is a whole of economy reform that will, for the first time, put a price on carbon and encourage investment in new, low pollution technologies.”

Solar electricity projects and players

One of Australia’s bigger players in PV, BP Solar, will cease the production of PV power cells and panels from its manufacturing plant in Sydney Olympic Park at the end of March 2009. The decision comes because the company is looking to focus its operations at larger-scale plants in the lowest-cost manufacturing countries, in order to drive down the cost of solar power for consumers. Yet against this a small start-up company (SparkSolar Pty Ltd) has the intention of commencing silicon wafer production sometime this year.

Larger-scale producers operating in the solar thermal (CST/CSP) or large-scale PV sectors, need investment certainty to establish projects and make them attractive to investors. The industry itself might prefer tax credits in the start-up phase, but in the recent past, substantial one off grants have been made to SolarSystems Pty Ltd in Victoria to build a 154MW PV dish concentrating system. SolarSystems has already established a number of dish concentrating systems in central Australia, and a new A$6.6 million, 26-dish solar power station to be built south of Alice Springs has also been announced.

Part of the Alice Solar City project, the Ilparpa Solar Power Station will be one of the largest solar power stations in Australia. The expected output of the solar farm will be about 1,800 megawatt hours (MWh) per year.

The company has been awarded A$3.3 million from the Australian Federal Government to construct the station, one of four iconic projects planned as part of the Alice Solar City project. Each of the 35 kW solar concentrator tracking dishes will be 14 metres high and have over 130 m2 of mirror reflector area. The power station began construction in February 2009 and is expected to start feeding power into the grid by early 2010.

Already under construction is the country’s largest roof mounted photovoltaic system, a 305 kW system on the roof of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Alice Springs.

In the solar thermal arena, there have further impressive projects that have been announced. The Worley Parsons group announced planning for an ambitious project to build up to 34 Concentrating Solar Thermal (CST) power stations, which could provide 10% of Australia’s energy needs by 2020. This A$34 billion project would meet half of the 20% renewable energy target that has been set by the Rudd Government for 2020, and could provide significantly more over time.

The company hopes that the first CST plant could be built in Australia by 2011. Each plant would be a utility sized installation of around 250MW, and would produce electricity at an estimated cost of A$0.15 per kWh, used in conjunction with a baseload source such as coal, gas, or geothermal - when that technology emerges.

"Through an unprecedented investment in energy efficiency, a four-fold expansion in renewable energy and the introduction of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, the Rudd Government is getting on with the job of tackling climate change..."
Senator Penny Wong

However, since an announcement in 2008, the company has been more low key about this venture.

The famous "Big Dish" at the Australian National University (ANU) is soon to be joined by the next generation of Big Dish technology; the new Gen-2 dish, which will be over 25% larger than the original dish (total aperture close to 500m2), is a prototype of the commercial version of the dish technology.

Once the prototype is completed at the ANU, construction of a 6 dish demonstration plant will commence in Whyalla, South Australia and integrated with the ANU developed ammonia dissociation solar energy storage system as part of Canberra-based WizardPower Pty Ltd 's Advance Electricity Storage Technology project. The new dish is being designed and built on the ANU campus under contract to Wizard Power, with support from AusIndustry. Featuring 380 identical square profile mirror panels, the new dish is being totally re-engineered for mass production, and to trial innovative "factory in the field" concepts. The site works commenced in February 2008, and the completion is expected in early 2009.

Wave power in Australia

Just as things are changing for solar thermal power, the Carnegie Corporation announced further news of its wave power project in late September in Fremantle. Australia’s waves could generate at least 35% of national power needs according to Carnegie.

Australia has an estimated near-shore wave energy resource of 170,000MW, approximately four times the national total installed power generation capacity. And around 35% of Australia’s current baseload power needs could economically be met by harnessing waves.

Australia has an estimated deep-water wave energy resource of 500,000MW – more than 10 times national installed capacity. An independent report commissioned by Carnegie found that at least 35% of Australia’s current baseload power needs could be economically generated from waves. The report, produced by ocean resource specialists RPS MetOcean, shows that Australia has a potential near shore (less than 25 metres water depth) wave energy resource of approximately four times Australia’s current total installed power generation capacity.

According to the report, from this near shore wave resource a conservative 10% is estimated to be economically extractable. The results also demonstrated that an effective wave resource availability of 97.5% exists, making baseload renewable power generation possible.

The report data was sourced primarily from the globally utilised NOAA WaveWatch III wave modelling system, and verified against actual measured wave data taken from sites along the southern Australian coastline.


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Energy infrastructure  •  Photovoltaics (PV)  •  Policy, investment and markets  •  Solar electricity