No danger Australia will lead the world on solar

The US will install solar equal to 10% of Australia’s entire power capacity this year while China will add even more. Solar is surging around the world, yet slumping down under.

This week I was honoured to speak on behalf of the Australian Solar Council to a Global Leaders’ Forum at China’s largest solar photovoltaic industry conference and exhibition. This is an extraordinary event – 180,000 sq m of exhibition space, tens of thousands of delegates.

With all the negativity at the moment in Australia around solar PV and renewable energy, it was the perfect opportunity to get a sense of what is happening around the world on solar PV, and boy is there a lot happening.

The US solar market is booming. It now employs 143,000 Americans. It is an industry worth $13.7 billion, up from just $810 million in 2006. Last quarter, 2.1 gigawatts was installed, taking the cumulative total to 13 GW. The outlook for 2014 is an extraordinary 6 GW, which is about 10 per cent of Australia’s entire power generating capacity across all fuels.

The US residential, commercial and utility solar markets are all up, with the residential solar market moving fastest. It is worth noting some 840 megawatts of concentrating solar projects are likely to be commissioned this year.

Just as the US market is booming, so too is the Chinese market, meaning Australia’s two largest trading partners are experiencing solar revolutions.

A staggering 12.4 GW of solar PV was installed in China in 2013, making China the largest PV market in the world, accounting for about 31 per cent of total global installs last year. China now accounts for about 8.8 per cent of all solar installations.

China’s target for 2015 is a cumulative total of 35 GW of installed PV – for 2020 it is for a cumulative total of 100 GW (nearly double Australia’s entire installed power generating capacity). China is on track to meet both targets.

The Chinese Government is now studying a PV electricity roadmap that would see two scenarios for 2050 (cumulative total):

– Base case: 1000 GW

– Proactive case: 2000 GW

While these are ambitious targets, the Chinese government sees great economic, social, and environmental benefits in this strategy.

Only a few short years ago Australia was hitting our numbers out of the park and our solar market was bigger than China’s. Australia actually won the gold medal for the most residential solar installations in the world. But that now seems so long ago.

Europe continues to chug along, despite economic uncertainty and the reduction in feed-in tariffs. Ten gigawatts were installed in 2013, and a similar figure is forecast each year over the next few years. With feed-in tariffs falling, new business models are emerging, reinforcing the innovation for which the solar PV industry is renowned.

In a taste of what is to come as the world moves into the next industrial revolution, Germany had 75 per cent of its power met by wind and solar last Saturday. German society has not collapsed.

In Australia, the story is very different. Political uncertainty, constant reviews of the Renewable Energy Target and the intransigence of the big power companies have all combined to throw Australia’s solar industry into a slump.

While our major trading partners – including Japan and South Korea – are experiencing solar booms, the Australian Government seems determined to be a solar vandal, devastating an industry that has led the world in solar research and development and which has been long poised to optimise the potential of the sunburnt country.

The Abbott Government has put all its chips on black (coal), but the world is telling us that is a very bad bet. The message from Shanghai was clear – the RET is of critical importance to Australia’s economic future. We cannot afford to muck around with it.

John Grimes is chief executive of the Australian Solar Council.