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  • Coal-rich Australia warms to solar power

Photonics Spectra
Sep 2011

Australia is a land rich with coal and natural gas – so why is it a boom time for solar energy on the island continent?

Coal generates 80 percent of Australia’s electrical energy, and the nation’s coal reserves are so large that it exports a total of 52 billion AUD (about $54.4 billion) every year. Because of the country’s dependency on fossil fuel, more than 33 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions originate with it. A growing public desire to abate climate change resulting from greenhouse gases, along with a deeper understanding that coal and other fossil fuels can’t last forever, has sparked demand for more alternative energy sources, albeit behind other industrial nations.

Australia’s first large solar power facility, White Cliffs, was built by the Australian National University in 1981. Initially a solar collector station that generated steam-based electricity, it was later converted to photovoltaic (PV) technology and connected to the local grid. White Cliffs closed, however, seven years ago.

The solar laboratories at Australian National University provide state-of-the-art infrastructure and equipment. Courtesy of Australian National University.

Today, one of the most important players in the country’s energy research is the national science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), which researches and develops traditional and alternative energy resources of all types. It spends 140 million AUD ($146.3 million) a year on related research.

The organization recently established the country’s largest solar thermal research facility, part of the CSIRO Energy Center in Newcastle, New South Wales. Supported by a grant from the Australian Solar Institute (ASI), the demonstration site includes a 30-m solar tower with a high-temperature receiver, and a 4000-m2 field comprising 450 heliostats. If it were connected to the grid, the setup could generate enough electricity to power more than 200 homes. For now, it is open to researchers from all over to develop and test new concentrated solar power technologies.

The National Solar Energy Center includes a 30-m solar tower fed sunlight by 450 heliostats. Courtesy of CSIRO.

“In the future, I see the CSIRO Energy Center becoming Australia’s version of the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Denver,” said Chris Fell, CSIRO research group leader.

Fell’s group is focused on developing new technologies for PV materials, with the ultimate goal of producing highly efficient and very durable, yet low cost, solar cells. The group also is building a major facility for characterizing the performance of PV panels, both in the laboratory and in the field.

Where CSIRO conducts solar research in Australia, the ASI invests in and champions the country’s solar R&D.

The sun rises on Australia’s solar thermal research hub in New South Wales. Courtesy of CSIRO.

The ASI, part of the government’s commitment to clean energy, drives R&D projects designed to accelerate PV and concentrated solar thermal technologies. With CSIRO, the University of New South Wales and Australian National University as foundation partners, the ASI has already committed 66 million AUD ($69 million) of the 150 million AUD ($156.8 million) it has been provided by the government to more than two dozen solar R&D projects led by Australian research organizations and industry partners, with most involving a consortium of partners.

“The establishment of the Australian Solar Institute in 2009 has injected much-needed funds into the Australian solar research community,” said CSIRO’s Fell. The majority of the country’s solar research is publicly funded, he added. “We’d like to see that change, but it may take some time to develop a domestic industry of sufficient size.”

Because another 7 percent of the country’s greenhouse emissions result from air conditioners, CSIRO is supporting research in this area as well. The organization currently is backing a research project that uses solar energy to drive a desiccant-based system that dries out humid fresh air and moves it to an evaporative cooler that chills the air before it enters a building.

There is even talk of being able to generate enough solar-based electricity to allow the export of some to Asia. Exports could happen in as few as 10 to 20 years. Other solar players would use any excess capacity to drive a process known as “solar hydrogen,” in which light energy directed at a water source generates capturable hydrogen. The gas would then be used to power fuel cells.

“In Australia, solar PV and thermal are the most obvious green energy options available, and technology is in place,” said Saulius Juodkazis of Swinburne University of Technology in Hawthorn, whose research is on material science and energy conversion related to solar efficiency.

“Considering the vast space available for solar (and a long coastline for wind harvesting), it is only a question of time [before] it will be implemented on a larger, industrial scale.”

Current large-scale projects involve Solar Dawn, a consortium led by Areva Solar, and Moree Solar Farm, a group led by BP Solar, both of which have gained major funding to develop power plants under the Australian government’s 1.5 billion AUD ($1.57 billion) Solar Flagships Program. Solar Dawn proposes to erect a 250-MW gas/solar thermal and gas hybrid facility near Chinchilla, Queensland; Moree Solar Farm proposes to build a 150-MW photovoltaic plant near Moree, New South Wales. Solar Dawn will be the largest project of its kind in the world, whereas the latter project, when completed, will be almost twice the size of any other PV plant to date. Work on both facilities is expected to begin in 2012, and the plants should be operational by 2015.

“From a practical standpoint, our coastal regions will favor PV, since the frequent partial cloud cover reduces the direct irradiance much more than it reduces the global irradiance,” Fell said. “Our desert regions are ideally suited to solar concentrator technologies, both PV and solar thermal.”

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