Australia: An Asia-Pacific Solar Power

published: 2012-08-22 13:52 | editor: | category: Knowledge

By D.A. Barber

Australia has quietly become the ninth largest market for solar PV in the world and is becoming one of the major markets for solar energy in the Asia-Pacific region, an area that is expected to account for around one-quarter of global PV demand by 2015.  PV production in the Asia-Pacific region grew by 165 percent during 2011, so Australia is strategically located to take advantage of this Asia-Pacific solar boom, including partnering with companies in China.

According to the Australian Solar Energy Society, Australia produced more than 1 gigawatt of solar energy in 2011 and is well on its way to its target of 20 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2020. In fact, with such high levels of irradiation nationwide, grid parity has arrived throughout Australia, according to a paper released in September 2011 by Australian National University’s Center for Sustainable Energy Systems’ Director Andrew Blakers.

In a recent report released at the UN climate negotiations in Durban in December 2011, the Clean Energy Council of Australia revealed that more than 500,000 homes in Australia already have PV systems - 35 times more PV systems than three years ago.  As for total renewable electricity generation, the country is producing power for around four million homes.

Government Programs

The Federal Government has been encouraging residential installations through its Renewable Energy Credit (REC) multiplier scheme, which subsidizes systems smaller than 1.5 kilowatts. While utility-scale solar power plants are rare, such projects have gotten a recent boost by the Federal Government’s “Solar Flagships” project as well as a recently-passed carbon tax that will increase the cost of coal-generated electricity, providing a further incentive for going solar. 

Over $32 million in funding for collaborative U.S.-Australia solar research was also announced by the Australian government and the U.S. during a visit by President Barack Obama to Australia on November 16, 2011.

On March 27, 2012,the Australian government announced the Southern Cross Renewable Energy Fund, a AUD$200 million, 13-year co-investment by the government, Southern Cross Venture Partners and Softbank China Venture Capital. The fund will make equity capital available to Australian start-up renewable energy companies to develop technologies and explore international networks.

Since 2009, the Australian government has invested in some 48 solar R&D projects through the Australian Solar Institute (ASI). The government announced in summer 2011 an injection of over AUD$750 million to help build two of the world’s largest solar power stations with construction scheduled to begin this year: a 150MW PV power plant in Moree, New South Wales and a 250MW solar thermal gas hybrid power plant in Chinchilla, Queensland. The Solar Dawn and Moree Solar Farm were selected under Round 1 of the Australian Government’s AUD$1.5 billion “Solar Flagships” program in 2011 with the expectation that both would be completed and commissioned by the end of 2015.

The Moree Solar Farm received a financial backing commitment from a BP Solar-led consortium, while the Chinchilla plant will be funded through a consortium led by French company, Areva Solar. Both state governments are also investing in the projects.

The Australian Government has also earmarked AUD$75 million towards a 100MW large-scale solar concentrator power project in Mildura, in north-west Victoria.

Meanwhile, one of Australia's largest PV projects reached a major construction milestone April 12, 2012, as First Solar, Inc. joined owners Western Australian state-owned power utility Verve Energy and GE Energy Financial Services to begin panel installation at the 10MW Greenough River Solar Farm, 50 kilometers south of Geraldton. That phase of construction will install approximately 150,000 First Solar thin-film PV modules, scheduled for completion in mid-2012 and cost AUD$50 million. The Western Australian government provided AUD$20 million in funding, including AUD$10 million from the WA Royalties for Regions program. Ultimately, the joint venture plans the site to expand to 40MW.

Australian Focus on CPV

The Australian Solar Institute (ASI) invests in research and development to accelerate to market innovation in PV technologies. In late March 2012, ASI announced it’s Round 3 funding which is focusing on concentrating solar technologies (CPV), including over AUD $7 million in funding for three large-scale projects to help accelerate commercial deployment of the technology.

ASI said it was ready to invest AUD$12 million to develop solar technology projects. Of that amount,

Some ASI funds - AUD$2 million – have also been earmarked to back a cell technology project that would ultimately reduce the cost of solar cell manufacturing and in the process curb delays to solar power plants being constructed.  Other new cell technology advances made possible through government funding are expected to be ready for Australia’s CPV projects over the next four years.

Other Australian CPV projects are pushing ahead with financial backing from ASI and a variety of other sources.

ASI is contributing AUD$1.75 million to RayGen Resources’ AUD$3.6 million Central Receiver CPV Pilot Project to demonstrate the world’s first pre-commercial central receiver CSP system that uses PV energy conversion. Other project partners include Boeing Spectrolab, Proteus Engineering Group, Able Engineering, Ceramet Technologies and Gannawarra Shire Council.

Chromasun, which is developing a pilot project of rooftop CST and CPV micro-concentrator systems, received AUD$3.46 million from ASI toward the AUD $9.26 million project. Other partners include Ergon Energy, Coolgaia, University of Southern Queensland, Munters and the Futuris Group of Companies. The next phase of the project involves developing a hybrid (CPV-T) receiver manufacturing capability for integration into MCT-Hybrid units that will then be deployed at the University of Southern Queensland and at the Australian National University. These MCT-Hybrid installations are designed to simultaneously generate electricity and hot water.

ASI is also fundingAUD$2 million of a AUD$5-million project by Solar Systems to develop high-efficiency multi-junction solar cells on low-cost, substrates as the next-generation multiple-junction solar cells for use in the CPV industry. The focus is development a new “Germanium” wafer-based substrate where a thin layer of Ge is deposited on a silicon wafer. The company, which is partnering with Translucent, IQE, Emcore and Boeing Spectolab, claims this will reduce the cost and improve the efficiency of the multi-junction cells for CPV applications.

Meanwhile, Silex Solar - despite brief delays – is pushing ahead with their planned AUD$400 million, 2MW CPV project in Mildura, Victoria. Once the project is completed, the company plans to gradually scale-up to a 100MW power station over the next four years.

Australia-China Connection

Opportunities for greater collaboration between Australia and China were spotlighted by Australian Solar Energy Society (AuSES) Chief Executive John Grimes when he spoke at the sixth China Solar Utilization Convention and Exhibition in Shandong Province in March 2012. It was at that event that the Australian Solar Energy Society and the China Renewable Energy Society signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to share solar information.

 “We are one of the major markets for solar energy in the Asia-Pacific region, which will account for around one-quarter of global solar PV demand by 2015,” Grimes said. “Solar PV production in the Asia-Pacific region grew by 165 percent during 2011, so Australia is strategically located both geographically and economically to take advantage of the Asia-Pacific solar boom, including in China.”

AuSES Chief Executive John Grimes (right) with Mr Shi Dinghuan, Chairman of China Renewable Energy Society (AuSES)

That Australia-China connection is already established and continuing to flourish.

In 2010, ASI funded AUD$24.16 million for an applied research project in collaboration with Suntech Power and Silex Solar that targets the delivery of a 25 per cent performance increase with a corresponding 15–20 per cent reduction in solar cell costs in dollars per watt. Silex Solar continues to work with its Chinese manufacturing partner, Hareon Solar, which has completed a successful IPO which will bring expanded clout to any future projects. 

The Victoria-Suntech Advanced Solar Facility, launched in 2010 for developing the next generation nanoplasmonic PV cells, is a collaborative venture between Swinburne University of Technology and Suntech Power Holdings.

And the co-investor for the recently government announced Southern Cross Renewable Energy Fund will be Shanghai-based Softbank China Venture Capitalmatching the federal government’s AUD$100 million investment.

Solar Set-backs

While Australia’s solar future continues to move forward, there have been a few recent set-backs.

In February 2012, BP Solar withdrew from the consortium that was successful in bidding under the Government’s solar program to install the 150MW Moree Solar Farm, expected to be the largest PV plant of its type in the world. The AUD$923-million plant’s viability has been in doubt since the consortium - BP Solar, Spanish-based Fotowatio Renewable Ventures and Pacific Hydro – had yet to secure funding due to the fact they had been unable to sign any power purchase agreements (PPA) for the electricity generated at the plant. With that news, the Australian government re-opened bids for the project to a short list of companies that include AGL, Infigen-Suntech and TRUenergy.

Premier Campbell Newman, along with his 18 ministers, was formally sworn in on April 3 as the new premier of Queensland. But back on March 22, 2012, Newman had announced his intentions to axe the state's AUD $50-million renewable energy fund, including funds allocated for “Solar Flagship” programs as well as the Queensland smart energy savings fund, the future growth fund and the solar initiatives package.

Conclusion

Australia’s focus on harnessing CPV technology and funding new cell technology for integration into Australia’s CPV projects over the next four years should help the CPV market as a whole through new markets and cutting the costs down to where it can compete without future government subsidies.

While the fast advance of rooftop PV distribution to the residential market is nothing short of amazing, the inability of the BP Solar-led consortium to sign PPAs for the Moree Solar Farm - and lure bankers with that leverage - has raised some doubts regarding the future of locally-financed large-scale PV power plants in the country. Backing renewable energy projects is new to much of the banking system in Australia and so the risks perceived as challenging may continue to leave the door open to foreign banks and investors.

On the other hand, if development of the Australian CPV market continues to be financially backed by not just the government, but also reluctant banks, Australian solar companies will be well positioned to export their technology to the nearby developing solar markets in New Zealand, Indonesia and other Pacific island nations.

The Australian Government is providing an unprecedented level of support for solar development through a national carbon price side by side with a Renewable Energy Target and a $17billion investment in clean energy technology. Much of that support is directed at developing next generation technologies and that, as well as the countries Pacific location, is where Australia believes it has an advantage in working further with China. Chinese investments in clean energy were $45.5 billion in 2011, according to a recent Pew Charitable Trusts report. And not only did China increase its domestic national target for solar deployment to 50GW, but they have also adopted their first national feed-in tariff.

But the Chinese, while good at producing inexpensive PV panels for the world market, still relies on partnerships with solar developers in other countries for the latest technology. Relationships with the United States, which has slowed in their solar development, have soured in recent months leaving other nations such as

Australiaopen for providing the latest technologies as they are developed through government and university-funded research programs. This type of arrangement is just what the two nations solidified on March 29, 2012, when the Australian Solar Energy Society and the China Renewable Energy Society signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in Beijing to share solar information. Among other things the alliance between Australia and China will “facilitate linkages between solar companies, researchers and organizations in China and Australia; and, promote academic, industry and cultural exchanges”.

According to Australian Solar Energy Society Chief Executive John Grimes, it’s a good match because “Australia has a world-class reputation for solar research and development, while China is emerging as a leading global producer of solar panels and is also accelerating its deployment of solar energy.”

“Through this agreement, we can strengthen the cooperation between the solar energy sectors in both countries and take up new opportunities to promote solar energy, leading to new investment, jobs and business opportunities in Australia and China,” said Grimes at the signing.

As development of the Australian solar market continues to be financially backed by not just the government, but also foreign banks and investors, Australian solar research companies will be well positioned to export their technology to not just China but also the nearby developing solar markets in New Zealand, Indonesia and other Pacific island nations.

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