Australia could be a world leader in solar power. The entrenched interests of the powerful coal lobby have been a barrier preventing the government getting fully behind the conversion to a solar powered economy. However the tide is turning in favour of solar power as technical innovation progresses, prices come down and popular support grows. Today I want to write about two solar stories from Australia.
Tyalgum is small community of just 300 residents in the beautiful hilly county along the border between New South Wales and Queensland. They are proposing to disconnect themselves from the electricity grid and supply all their energy needs from ordinary rooftop photovoltaic (pv) solar panels with batteries in all the buildings to store electricity in the most distributed way possible. For relatively isolated small communities at the end of the electricity grid this makes perfect sense. Once Tyalgum achieve this many other similar communities are likely to follow them.
Meanwhile scientists at the Australian National University at Canberra have just announced 97% conversion efficiency for turning sunlight into steam. They use a huge 500 square metre parabolic mirrored dish to concentrate the sun’s energy onto a small central receiver. Water pumped through this receiver is heated to 500 degrees Celsius by the power of 2,100 Suns, creating steam to drive turbines and so make electricity, or to be stored in molten salt to generate electricity after the sun has set. Australia has long been good at research into concentrating solar thermal power (CSP) but unfortunately has never had the government vision and support to achieve large scale commercial deployment, so consequently Australia lags a long way behind Morocco, Chile, South Africa or the USA in terms of deployment of CSP. However as costs continue to fall, spurred on by innovation and increases in efficiency, the economics of concentrating solar power relative to coal continue to improve.
It makes sense for cities to be linked into power grids, but for isolated communities cutting themselves off from the grid makes increasingly good economic sense. Solar power could supply all of Australia’s power needs and both pv and CSP have a role to play. Australia now has a new government and it is high time they put the conversion to a solar powered economy as a top priority: there would be many benefits, including cheaper electricity and reduced carbon emissions.