The Australian Solar Institute (ASI) has recently celebrated two years as a catalyst of and champion for Australian solar energy innovation.
The ASI was established by the Australian Government in 2009 and is part of the Government’s long term clean energy strategy, which also includes the $1.5 billion Solar Flagships Program.
Since its establishment in 2009, the ASI has laid the foundations for the commercialisation of homegrown solar technologies by providing funding for excellent solar research and development (R&D) projects and helping to support more than 100 of Australia’s leading solar researchers.
By encouraging innovation in the commercial deployment of solar photovoltaic (PV) and concentrating solar power (CSP) technologies, the ASI is supporting research that will reduce the cost of solar energy compared to existing energy sources and lead the way towards a clean energy future.
According to the Chair of the ASI Board, Ms Jenny Goddard, “the Australian Solar Institute considers that solar energy will be an important part of a clean energy, lower emissions future. The ASI is focused on investing in research and development that will help convert a free, infinite resource into cost effective, competitive energy that can be deployed on commercial terms”.
Over its two year history, the ASI has committed approximately $AUD 66 million to over two dozen solar research, development and pilot demonstration projects with a total leveraged value of approximately $AUD 200 million.
Through its investment in CSP and solar PV projects the ASI is continuing to foster greater collaboration between solar researchers and industry as well as forging strong links with peak overseas solar research organisations.
In the past year, two major solar research facilities have been established in Australia to help our country’s researchers test and demonstrate their solar innovations. The ASI has supported the development of a solar thermal research facility in Newcastle in collaboration with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and helped establish a $6 million worldclass process and characterisation solar research facility at the Australian National University (ANU). International collaborative funding programs have also been established to further accelerate progress to cost effective solar energy generation, faster than partner countries could achieve on their own.
The CSIRO Solar Thermal Research Hub
In June, Prime Minister Julia Gillard together with the Minister for Resources and Energy, Martin Ferguson, Member for Newcastle, Sharon Grierson and Member for Shortland, Jill Hall, opened a new olar thermal research facility at the CSIRO Energy Centre in Newcastle.
Supported by a $5 million grant from the ASI, the CSIRO Solar Thermal Research Hub is the largest solar thermal research facility in the country and a world-class international hub for CSP research, development and commercialisation.
The facility will be used to research innovative solar air turbine technology, able to generate electricity from air and solar radiation without the need for water. This technology has the potential to provide pivotal energy supplies in remote arid areas such as Australia’s desert regions.
According to Dr Alex Wonhas, Director of CSIRO’s Energy Transformed Flagship, this project “will be used to refine the technology in order to make it a cheaper, more efficient energy source that is suitable for many desert locations in Australia,and the world. Most solar thermal power stations require water to operate a steam turbine to produce electricity [however] our Brayton Cycle technology does not need water [and] is therefore ideally suited to many parts of Australia that only receive minimal rainfall.”
The 30-metre high solar tower surrounded by 450 locally manufactured custom designed mirrors (heliostats) is capable of generating temperatures of up to 1,500° Celsius, which can be converted into a significant amount of electricity.
Covering an area of 4,000 square metres, the facility will also be used to research solar energy storage, high temperature steam generation, solarised fuels and thermoelectric generators.
Already the facility has attracted partnerships with Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Spain’s Abengoa Solar New Technology. With further ASI support, the CSIRO will work with these organisations, two of the world’s most prominent energy organisations, to test air turbine technology and steam and storage technology, respectively.
As just one of many ASI-funded projects, the CSIRO Solar Thermal Research Hub will aim to increase energy efficiency, lower commercial costs and drive solar R&D in Australia.
According to Dr Wonhas, “this new facility will allow us to improve our science by using a real-world, operating solar thermal field to test ways to make the process more efficient and reduce the cost of this clean technology.”
In November last year, the ASI joined the Minister for Resources and Energy, Martin Ferguson for the launch of the new ANU Solar Laboratory, supported by a $5 million ASI grant.
The Laboratory provides world-class research facilities for Australian researchers and industry and is set to attract leading solar researchers and further investment in Australian solar innovation.
It includes best-in-Australia equipment and rooftop testing facilities to support highly skilled researchers and technicians, in undertaking solar R&D and commercialisation activity. It supports the needs of industry, and is capable of accommodating full-sized solar cells.
According to ASI CEO Mark Twidell, the Laboratory “provides cutting edge capability in solar cell haracterisation - making sure the right solar cells are used for the right purpose, thus increasing efficiency.”
Over the next five years the Laboratory will support an estimated $30 million worth of new research projects, and significantly enhance the 20 solar R&D contracts ANU already has in place with commercial and government partners.
It is being used for an ASI-supported project to develop a commercial product that converts solar energy into both thermal and electrical energy. With a $3.2 million ASI grant, the ANU-led project was launched in August this year and aims to make solar energy competitive by delivering solar driven electricity, heating and cooling from one system direct to where it will be used at a price that competes with traditional retail energy.
ANU lead investigator Professor Andrew Blakerssaid the project aims to develop and commercialise an improved roof-mounted hybrid solar system that is suitable for installation on millions of domestic, commercial and industrial buildings.
“Ultimately, this innovation could pave the way for millions of zero emission buildings across Australia, and the world,” Professor Blakers said.
“Government programs and policies are driving very strong growth of the Australian solar energy industry, and creating market space for productssuch as this.”
The ASI support has helped the ANU attract over $2 million funding plus in-kind support from industry towards the project.
Another project benefiting from the Laboratory is a collaboration between the ASI, the ANU and one of the world’s largest manufacturers of solar cells, Trina Solar. This project, supported with a $3.3 million ASI project grant, will aim to increase the
“Partnering with Trina, a leading company in the well established global supply chain, well and truly reinforces Australia’s position on the world solar energy map.”
While funding towards local solar facilities has been an initial focus for the ASI, international collaboration is also considered an essential part in further building the skills and capacity of the Australian solar sector.
In 2010 and again in 2011, the ASI established key international engagements with similar entities around the world.
In November 2010, the Australian and United States (U.S.) governments issued a Joint Statement to announce the United States-Australia Solar Energy Collaboration (USASEC).
USASEC was developed as a way of supporting research activities under the Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in the Energy Sector signed by both countries in November 2003.
The ASI is responsible for managing the funds granted by the Australian Government towards the program, which includes the provisionof scholarships for talented Australian solarresearchers.
With $AUD 50 million to support further developments in solar R&D, it is hoped that USASEC can accelerate the pace of innovation in the solar industry.
Further to this engagement with the U.S., in March 2011, the German Aerospace Centre Deutsches Zentrum für Luft und Raumfahrt (DLR) and the ASI agreed to cooperate on research into CSP technology.
As one of two international funding partnerships ith Germany, DLR Executive Board Member for Energy and Transport, Ulrich Wagner believes this research initiative was highly significant in a global aim towards achieving a clean energy future.
“Australia’s commitment to a climate-friendly energy supply [and] its excellent research infrastructure…are an excellent basis for us to work together on reducing the cost of solar power using technology developed by DLR”.
This builds on a Memorandum of Understanding between the ASI and the prestigious Fraunhofer Institute in Germany to work together on collaborative solar R&D projects, skills development and information sharing. Together the two Memoranda have helped the ASI to establish the Australia-Germany Collaborative Solar Research and Development Program.
Applications will soon close for this new program to support collaborative solar R&D projects between Australian researchers and researchers at German research institutes that will lead to increased commercial deployment of PV and CSP technologies.
The ASI is also committed to unlocking the potential of some of the world’s best, early career solar researchers to support the growth of skills and capacity in the Australian solar sector.
Since 2010, the ASI has awarded eight PhD Scholars and Postdoctoral Fellows with funding to complete their solar R&D projects, under the ASI Skills Development Program.
The Program allows student researchers to gain their PhDs in solar R&D, and Postdoctoral Fellows to further their current research projects.
With a focus on retaining and attracting accomplished Australian researchers to deliver results in solar R&D, the ASI continues to encourage research applications with the nextround of the Skills Development Program currently seeking applicants.
As part of USASEC, the ASI will be awarding scholarships for researchers to go on exchange in the United States and bring back new knowledge to help them and their peers accelerate innovation in solar technologies.
The scholarships will see the students working at nationally accredited U.S. research facilities alongside leading solar R&D researchers.
The future of solar R&D
With a rise in fossil fuel costs and the introduction of tax measures to control carbon emissions, theallure of solar energy has grown significantly.
Recognised as the world’s fastest growing energy sector, many experts have emphasised the importance of investing in solar technology to help alleviate our reliance on fossil fuels and manage consumer demands for energy.
Director of the ARC Photovoltaics Centre of Excellence, Professor Stuart Wenham is one expert who supports ongoing research into power generation from solar radiation.
In a presentation to the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in April this year, Professor Wenham emphasised how solar research will be a significant tool in developing technologies that can cope with current energy trends.
“One of the most important things to realise is that…our world is probably going to consume about four times as much energy by the end of this century”, he told UNSW students.
“There’s going to have to be a huge amount of energy and electricity generation coming from other sources [and] in the future, it is…anticipated that solar power will need to provide the bulk of our worlds energy requirements.”
In recent months, the solar energy industry has been experiencing record growth that is challenging the coal and nuclear industries with worldwide solar sales 100 times larger than in the year 2000, and the industry turnover now approaching 100 billion dollars per year.
A new report released by the Australian Photovoltaic Association (APVA) shows that solar power connected to the distribution network in Australia was edging towards ‘’grid parity’’, meaning it could soon become cheaper than electricity delivered from centrally located fossil fuel-based generators such as coal and gas plants.
This report lists Australia as a leader in solar R&D as a result of ongoing funding support from the Australian Government and different industry bodies. According to APVA, a total of $AUD 641.3 million was spent by the Australian and State/Territory Governments on PV R&D, greatly outnumbering funding amounts in many other countries.
The report highlighted how most Australian universities now undertake some form of PV research as a way of enhancing the competitiveness of solar energy in Australia, which is due largely to funding bodies such as the ASI. It states, “research funding from the ASI will begin to see enhanced research outcomes, encompassing a range of PV technologies” to help accelerate innovation in solar technologies with the potential to significantly reduce consumer costs.
With the great potential for solar energy use in Australia, the Australian Government is bolstering investment in renewable energy R&D through bodies such as the ASI.
According to Chair of the ASI Board, Ms Jenny Goddard, by continuing its commitment to solar R&D development, the ASI will help Australia to remain at the forefront of this rapidly growing industry.
“We see a future where solar power has an increasingly important role to play in securing energy availability, both within Australia and elsewhere in the world. Countries that have invested in the technologies required to achieve this goal will see considerable economic benefits. For the Australian solar industry generally to be best positioned to benefit from the anticipated global growth of solar, value must be added now and the ASI is adding this value”.
As a recognised world leader in solar technology, Australia is well-placed to continue to play an invaluable role in enhancing the competitive value of solar energy and, most importantly, in realising Australia’s capacity as a clean energy country. Through ongoing collaboration and knowledge sharing within the Australian and global solar research community, and the continued support of the Australian Solar Institute and the Australian Government, Australia has all the potential to remain a world leader in innovative solar technology.
1. Researcher Evan Franklin, then ANU Vice-Chancellor Ian Chubb, and the Minister for Resources and Energy, Martin Ferguson watch a laser demonstration at the ANU’s solar research facility.
2. University of Newcastle solar researcher Natalie Holmes who was awarded an ASI PhD Scholarship in 2010.