Coal-rich Australia warms to solar power
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
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
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
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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