Global boom in renewables an opportunity for Australia – Shorten

Australia has the research excellence to capture a “fair share” of the US$2.5 trillion dollars of forecast global investment in renewables, Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said on a visit to UNSW’s world-leading solar energy research centres.

Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten at UNSW’s solar energy research labs. Photo by Robert Largent.Shorten praised UNSW’s global lead in renewable energy research, and promised that, if elected, Labor would require government bodies to source 50% of their power from renewables by 2030.

Visiting labs at UNSW’s School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering, Shorten spoke with Dr Xiaoping Hao and her team, who in April achieved the world’s highest efficiency using flexible solar cells that are non-toxic and cheap to make.

He later inspected a solar concentrator device on the roof, where he spoke with Dr Mark Keevers, who in May set a new world efficiency record of 34.5% for sunlight-to-electricity conversion using a new solar cell configuration that edges closer to the theoretical limits for photovoltaic cells.

“It was no less a person than U.S. Vice-President Al Gore who told me that the University of New South Wales is the premium solar research centre in the world,” Shorten told a group of 40 journalists travelling with him on the election campaign. “And the work that’s being done here proves that Australia can compete for the jobs of the future.

“The research we’ve been privileged to see this morning is going to drive a new wave of investment, advanced manufacturing, help households have lower prices for their energy and also cut pollution,” he said.

Shorten pledged that half of the power consumed by government departments and agencies would come from renewables by 2030 under a federal Labor government.

“By prioritising renewables, “we will make sure that Australia gets its fair share of the US$2.5 trillion dollars of investment that’s forecast to be made in the Asia-Pacific region alone,” he said.

“The rest of the world, in the last two years, has added two million renewable energy jobs. Australia, by contrast … has gone back by 3,000 jobs [in the sector],” he added.

Both Hao and Keevers work at UNSW’s Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics (ACAP), which faces an existential threat if research grants it receives from Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) are cut off.

The Liberal-National coalition government of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull wants to revoke ARENA’s ability to issue research grants, and return its $1.3 billion in unspent funds to consolidated revenue. But these plans have been stymied by opposition in the Senate.

Meanwhile, the Labor Opposition has not committed to retain ARENA’s grant funding, promising only to reserve $305 million of the unspent funds for large solar thermal demonstration projects.

Last week, Australia’s two top solar researchers – UNSW’s Martin Green, a pioneer of solar cells who has led the field for much of his 40 years, and Andrew Blakers of the Australian National University (ANU) – called on both parties not to ‘unintentionally kill’ solar cell research in Australia by cutting off grant funding from ARENA.

“I don’t think this is a deliberate attempt to wipe out research into photovoltaics in this country – it’s more a case that the implications have slipped below the radar – but that’s what could happen,” Green said.

Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten visiting UNSW’s School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering, with the Sunswift solar race car in the foreground. Photo by Robert Largent.“Continuity in funding is essential in solar cell research, so if you lose your funding for even a year or so, a lot of your expertise disappears as teams are disbanded,” said Green, who is Director of UNSW’s Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics (ACAP). “Our researchers would find employment overseas very easily, and we’d lose that expertise.”

ANU’s Blakers said photovoltaics and wind energy combined accounts for all new generation capacity being installed each year in Australia, and 50% worldwide, and is doubling every four years.

“Australia has a tremendous track record of leadership in photovoltaics. Severe curtailment of ARENA grants will cause loss of that leadership, loss of commercial opportunities, loss of hundreds of jobs, and severe downscaling of PhD and undergraduate student opportunities,” Blakers said.

ARENA is the major funder for Australia’s solar researcher labs, and an end to grants would see scores of early-career researchers lose their jobs next year, leaving many PhD students in limbo and severely curtailing training and expertise in the renewable sector.

UNSW and ANU are global leaders in solar cell research, which have brought well over $8 billion in economic benefits to Australia in the past decade, according to a recent report produced by Green. Gains in efficiency alone, made possible by PERC cells, are forecast to save $750 million in Australia’s electricity generation over the next 10 years.

PERC cells were invented at UNSW by Blakers, Green and others and are now becoming the commercial standard globally, with sales of US$9 billion a year. But advances in photovoltaics continue, promising to deliver better efficiencies and ever cheaper cells.

Just in the past month, UNSW researchers made world headlines when they announced notable advances in solar cell research, establishing a new efficiency record of 34.5% for an unfocussed prism mini-module, and the development of a new flexible solar cell for zero-energy buildings that is non-toxic and cheap to manufacture. At ANU, work on advanced materials and high efficiency tandem cell designs are showing great promise in further decreasing the costs of solar energy.

“Things are moving faster in solar cell efficiency than most experts expected, and that’s good news for solar energy,” said Green, who is overseas to present UNSW’s recent results at international conferences. “Extracting more energy from every beam of sunlight is critical to reducing the cost of electricity generated by solar cells, as it lowers the investment needed, delivering payback faster.”

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  • Photo by Robert Largent.
  • Photo by Robert Largent.
  • Photo by Robert Largent.