Waking up to the solar dawn

With the advantage of soaring manufacturing capacity, the world’s solar PV factories could hammer out the annual electricity of 10x 1000MW nuclear power plants. So why is Australia dragging its heels?

Every week Suntech, the world’s biggest photovoltaic manufacturer, is pumping out hundreds of thousands of solar panels to power households and businesses across the globe. Dozens of other companies in China, Germany, Korea and elsewhere are doing the same.

The solar photovoltaic manufacturing industry is a prime example of renewable energy’s growing success story. In 2010, the world’s solar PV factories could produce in excess of 38 gigawatts of panels in just one year. By the end of 2011, that production capacity will have expanded to 50GW of solar panels (24GW will be installed).

Taking advantage of the 50GW of PV manufacturing capacity globally, the world’s PV factories can hammer out the annual electricity of 10x 1000MW nuclear power plants. With forecasts of 300GW of production capacity in 2020, a year’s worth of production installed around the globe will displace the annual output of 60 large old nuclear power stations. That’s a lot of nuclear power plants-worth of electricity, minus the community outrage, minus the political sparring, and minus the decades, or even centuries-long site and waste management issues that are part and parcel of nuclear power. And unlike a nuclear plant or a coal-fired plant, all those silicon solar panels can be collected, recycled and made into brand new solar panels at the end of their 25-year plus lifespan.

In a happy coincidence, due to the correlation between sunlight hours and higher energy demand on the world's electricity grids, solar photovoltaic is capable of powering one quarter of the worlds energy needs. Whereas nuclear is currently powering just 12 per cent of the world’s electricity and is in decline.

Not to mention that, in most countries, the daily peak of solar PV production coincides with peak power prices. Energy production also drops off at night, so solar PV generators never have to struggle to find a market for electricity from 11PM to 7AM, unlike nuclear generators.

Supplementing that photovoltaic production with wind power and solar thermal with storage – two of the fastest-growing energy sources in the world – as well as pumped-storage hydro, rounds out an energy profile that would be able to fulfill almost all of the Australia’s needs.

Photovoltaic installations, wind farms, pumped-storage hydro projects and solar thermal power plants obviously have different capacity factors and are operational at different times. Yet this is no barrier to widespread deployment.

Depending on location, wind power frequently produces in the morning and evening, complementing photovoltaic production before it reaches its peak. It’s also a fuel saver, allowing other plants to shut down and reserve their fuel supplies. Solar thermal with storage can provide between 14-17 hours of power without sun, allowing generation during nighttime hours and overcast conditions. And pumped-storage hydro plants, which often only hold enough water to produce electricity for a dozen hours, can be kept offline until high-price peak events occur – for instance, when everyone turns on their air conditioners.

Governments that put off delivering adequate support to the nascent renewable energy industry are simply delaying the inevitable. In the meantime, the consumer has to wait longer for lower energy prices.

Imagine if politicians had performed the same foot-dragging maneuvers when it came to installing our telecommunications infrastructure. The first telegraph lines were immensely expensive. With the help of initial government incentives, phone companies are now at a point where their networks can handle billions of calls and deliver internet services to hundreds of millions of households.

The time and money needed to support solar photovoltaic deployment across the country is nowhere near what the telecommunications sector needed. In Australia, it will take four to five years – not 100 – to see cost-competitive solar energy enter the grid, driven by consumer demand and reductions in wholesale power prices, thanks to the merit order effect. It’s entirely conceivable that, one day soon, we will generate 15-25 per cent of the nation’s electricity from solar photovoltaic power. If we go all the way and electrify our transportation and eliminate gas heating, that would be 15-25 per cent of all our energy needs.

Australia is the world’s sunniest country. It’s only natural that we should harness its energy to power our lives. With a plan for a large-scale rollout of solar, Australia, too, can be part of the renewable energy success story.

Matthew Wright is executive director of Beyond Zero Emissions and 2010-11 Young Environmentalist of the Year

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