Delivering a solar future

The federal government is investing $1 billion in the Solar Sunshot program to supercharge Australia’s ambition to become a renewable energy super power at home and abroad. But it was an opportunity previously handed to the Howard Liberal Government, who dismissed solar as being a viable option to move away from carbon-based power generation.

3 April 2024

ALAN HAYES

 

THE significant new commitment by the federal government to move toward a renewal energy future follows last week’s introduction of legislation establishing the Net Zero Economy Authority to help catalyse investment in a clean energy future made in Australia’s regions.

 

Solar SunShot will help Australia capture more of the global solar manufacturing supply chain through support, including production subsidies and grants.

 

This will help ensure more solar panels are made in Australia, including in the Hunter Region, where the Prime Minister made the announcement at the site of the former coal-fired Liddell Power Station.

 

Australians have embraced solar power like few other nations have. While one in three Australian households have solar panels - the highest uptake in the world - only one per cent of those have been made in Australia. In South Australia, almost 60% of their electricity generation came from renewables in 2020.

 

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said “Australia should not be the last link in a global supply chain built on an Australian invention.

 

“I want a future made in Australia. And I want a future made in our regions. Places like the Hunter that have powered our nation for more than a century will power our future.

 

“We have every metal and critical mineral necessary to be a central player in the net zero transformation, and a proven track record as a reliable energy producer and exporter.

 

“We can also invest in strategic manufacturing capability, particularly in components critical to the energy and economic transition, like solar panels.

 

“Historically, Australia has been good at going from the mining pit to port, and long may this continue. But the Australian Government will also invest in the path from pit to panels and capture more value for our economy and workforce.”

 

In parallel with Solar Sunshot, the NSW Government is delivering the NSW Net Zero Manufacturing Initiative, with the $275 million first round now open to support workers, small businesses, manufacturers and innovators to take advantage of the transformation of our energy grid.

 

NSW Minister for Climate Change and Energy Penny Sharpe said “This will see NSW households putting NSW made solar panels on their roofs to deliver long term energy bill savings and a strong domestic renewable manufacturing sector.

 

“It’s great to be able to align NSW and Commonwealth funding to support clean energy manufacturing, with this fund bolstering our $275 million investment in Net Zero Manufacturing that’s currently open for NSW innovators and businesses.”

 

In the second round, the NSW Government will work with industry to leverage government procurement to offer offtake agreements to local manufacturers of renewable products and low carbon materials.

 

NSW Minister for Domestic Manufacturing and Government Procurement Courtney Houssos “We will leverage our government procurement spend to build in offtake agreements with local solar manufacturers and foster the industry’s growth.

 

“For every job created in manufacturing there are a further three-and-a-half jobs sustained in the supply chain.

 

“The NSW Labor Government is committed to rebuilding the domestic manufacturing sector and bringing jobs back to NSW.”

 

Initiatives like Solar SunShot and the NSW Net Zero Manufacturing Initiative, mean the regions that have long powered this country will continue to prosper in the net zero economy by deepening the industrial; base, largely located in the regions.

 

The $1 billion federal investment in the Solar Sunshot program builds on over $40 billion of investment committed by the Australian Government to make Australia a renewable energy superpower.

 

The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) will now work with industry to design and deliver this initiative, along with the Australian Government. ARENA will look at the entire supply chain from ingots and wafers to cells, module assembly, and related components, including solar glass, inverters, advanced deployment technology and solar innovation. The consultation is expected to commence in mid-April.

 

This complements other processes underway such as the Hydrogen Headstart program also administered by ARENA.

 

But where did the solar panel revolution start? The father of modern solar generation is an Australian – Professor Martin Green!

 

Upon returning to Australia in 1974, Martin Green started research at the University of New South Wales, initiating the Solar Photovoltaics Group which soon worked on the development of silicon solar cells.

 

Working out of a small university laboratory built with unwanted equipment scrounged from big American engineering firms, Professor Green looked for ways to increase the voltage on early solar cells.

 

Within a short time-frame, Professor Green was beating everyone else in the field (even NASA) and breaking records in terms of voltage through solar.

 

Having boosted the voltage, the next step was building better quality cells.

 

The team’s early efforts broke the world efficiency record in 1983 – a habit the team would continue for 30 of the next 38 years.

 

Minister for Industry and Science, Ed Husic said “Solar panels were our idea, we should be making them here and that’s what we’ll do. Aussie know-how is creating Aussie jobs, that’s what a future made in Australia is all about.”

 

Chris Bowen, Minister for Climate Change and Energy, said “Australian research helped invent the modern solar panel – the government’s announcement is about creating Australian jobs to help manufacture them.

 

“We know that the world’s climate emergency is Australia’s jobs opportunity, $1 billion to support Australian manufacturing in solar technology will help seize that opportunity.”

 

Yet the solar opportunity that the federal government and Chris Bowen is now spruiking is a ‘seized opportunity’ that could have been brought to the world but was lost in 2001.

 

While Martin Green is considered the father of modern solar panels, it was one of his proteges who brought it to the world.

 

Zhengrong Shi was a Chinese student who came to Australia a year before the Tiananmen Square massacre.

 

Green took Shi on as a Ph.D. student in 1989, completing his doctorate in a record two and a half years – a record that still stands today.

 

In 1995, the two men lead a team at the newly formed Pacific Solar company, a factory based in Sydney, where Shi quickly earned a reputation for resourcefulness and precision.

 

Five years later and after some incredible innovations in the solar power industry, Shi offered these innovations to the Howard Liberal government – to provide funding to take Australia into the forefront of solar panel manufacturing in the world.

 

But while the Liberal Government ‘galahs’ sat in the branches, pontificating their valueless opinions, unable to see the ‘wood for the trees’, Shi was made an offer by the Chinese government he couldn’t refuse. They convinced him to move back to China and set up his own factory with full government support.

 

Shi agreed and ended up settling in the small city of Wuxi where he founded SunTech, which rapidly expanded to become the largest solar panel producer in the world.

 

Shi’s innovations were actually ahead of their time, being able to build cheap solar panels with a 17% efficiency was far beyond what any competitors were capable of.

 

Australia was given the opportunity to be in the forefront of solar power development but let it slip through their fingers because of political ‘galah-type’ ineptness - now we are are playing catch up.

 

Yet, while still believing we are the clever country, solar panels are only part of the equation.

 

Solar panels and storage batteries are great for home power systems, but not everyone is or will be in a position to install a home power system that will provide all their domestic energy needs. Base-load power will still need to come from the electricity grid and this can only be achieved by investment in green power plant generation – something that the Albanese government and Energy Minister Chris Bowen have left out of their Net Zero rhetoric.

 

While it is now commendable that the government is investing in Australian solar panel manufacture on a grand scale, and have dreams of becoming a world leader in the field, without investment into technology to replace coal and gas Net Zero will remain a pipe dream.

 

The way forward is Concentrated Solar Thermal Power Plants – clean, green energy that is being embraced by many countries around the world. The Albanese government know about it – the CSIRO have a pilot plant in Newcastle; the government funds the Australian Solar Thermal Research Institute whose main purpose is to develop this technology. So, why is the federal government’s Net Zero glass only half full when it comes to ‘pitching’ a renewable future?

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