The Solar Continent

The Liberal Party has markedly changed its tune on solar power since it got kicked out of office, with shadow environment minister Greg Hunt calling for a national feed in tariff for solar power and declaring he "has a vision of Australia becoming a solar continent" at the Climate Action Network Australia Conference in Sydney.

Hunt went on to say ""giant dishes, large fields of mirrors, these are one of the forms of power stations of the future" and "an important part of Australia's future energy" - all of which indicates he is on board with the vision of large scale solar thermal power.

From the Sydney Morning Herald report:

The federal opposition has called for a national solar payment to encourage more home owners to generate solar power. The Queensland and South Australian governments have approved such tariffs, which pay households above the retail rate for electricity generated by solar panels.

Opposition environment spokesman Greg Hunt on Monday said a draft plan should be prepared for a national tariff which has a guaranteed rate of pay for solar electricity feedback into the grid. "We should be aiming for more than a piecemeal approach," Mr Hunt says in notes for a speech given in Sydney on Monday. "A national solar feed-in tariff could provide an immediate boost to domestic solar power uptake." Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and state premiers agreed last month to consider options for a harmonised approach to renewable energy feed-in tariffs.

Mr Hunt also told the Climate Action Network Australia conference that the nation needs to develop large-scale projects to create baseload solar power. "Much needs to be done on this front in relation to cost, reliability and storage of energy. I am, however, convinced that solar baseload can be developed to contribute to average daily base energy needs and over time energy storage technology can be developed to allow full baseload operation derived from solar energy.

The Australian also has a report:

AUSTRALIA must invest far more heavily in solar power, including it as a mainstream energy source in the national grid, Opposition environment spokesman Greg Hunt has said.

In a speech to be delivered to a climate change conference today, Mr Hunt will spell out the Coalition's vision for a "solar continent", in which the energy source could be stored and sold on the market like coal-generated, baseload power. "In short, we want to set Australia on a path to being a country where everyone willing to invest is within reach of running a solar home," Mr Hunt will tell the two-day Climate Action Network Australia Conference in Sydney.

This would include a national feed-in tariff - a guaranteed rate of pay for solar electricity fed back into the grid by small solar generators, including private households. To date, South Australia and Queensland have approved solar feed-in tariffs that guarantee 44c per KWH of solar energy, but the Coalition wants a truly national scheme.

Mr Hunt said the Coalition's solar strategy had two broad components - increased use of solar photovoltaic power to boost short-term peaking capacity and solar baseload power generated by solar concentrators.

He argues solar energy using photovoltaic panels offers the best and most efficient means of providing zero-emissions energy during periods of peak power use. "In this context, we want to set a clear policy direction of substantially increasing the take-up of Solar PV throughout Australia," he says. And more should be done to encourage the use of solar hot water heaters in both homes and schools. Currently solar heaters are used by only one in 20 Australian homes.

Realising the solar vision would mean the development of baseload power providing storage and conversion capabilities, Mr Hunt told The Australian. "I think that the technology has moved in the last two years. The big move is that globally you are beginning to see storage. There's now no doubt in my mind that it will be a technically viable baseload energy form over time."

The 154 MW solar concentrator being constructed at Mildura, Victoria, will be the largest solar station in the world and the first major local plant generating baseload power.

I think the belief that the Mildura plant will be the world's largest solar power plant is well out of date, but its still a significant first step.

Robert Merkel at Larvatus Prodeo is rather critical about the scheme, focusing on the economics of small scale solar PV and ignoring the solar thermal aspect, which is where the real prize lies in the medium term.

While its clear that solar PV isn't cost competitive with coal, gas, wind or solar thermal power, it doe shave some advantages that he overlooks - it generates power during peak load times (thus reducing the need for peaking plants) and delivers power where it is needed (thus reducing the need for additional grid capacity). It also delivers some intangible "energy security" to the "operator" in the event of any disasters befalling the grid or power generating units.

It may just be that Greg Hunt knows he’s never actually going to have to justify his policy ideas to Treasury or the Productivity Commission. But, at the moment, you’d swear he was the Greens environment spokesperson, not the Liberal Party’s. He’s proposing a whole raft of measures to promote the development of solar energy in Australia.

Of most direct short-term interest is the proposal for a national “feed-in tariff” scheme. To explain this, first some background. If you’ve got access to grid electricity, solar panels are currently financial lunacy. The solar system I’m currently being quoted on (thanks to commenter wilful for the tip) costs about $12,000, and generates about $225 worth of electricity every year. By contrast, if I left that $12,000 in the bank, I’d get at least double that after tax. If I put the money into a share fund, over the course of a decade I’d probably do much better again. I’d be able to pay for GreenPower from my electricity supplier, and have a considerable pile of money left over.

So why am I looking at solar cells? Because of the massive government rort known as the Photovoltaic Rebate Programme. Essentially, the government will pay $8000 towards the cost of my 1 kilowatt installation. I only have to pay somewhere around $4000, and it works out pretty close to cost effective.

This is, as previously stated, extremely silly policy. The same government money subsidising wind turbines, or, better still, energy efficiency in government buildings, would achieve far greater emission savings. Even if you want to specifically subsidize solar cell technology - and I fail to see why you would, given that there’s every likelihood that other forms of renewable energy will be far cheaper - it’s still dumb policy. Why? Because the rebate is limited to 1 kilowatt systems. It would make far more sense to build bigger solar arrays on factory roofs, because the cost of building one 100-kilowatt photovoltaic array is much smaller than the cost of 100 1-kilowatt arrays. But the subsidies don’t work that way.

Despite my cynicism to follow, this is actually a pretty significant announcement. Certainly a big change in Liberal Party politics.

Now when the Rudd Government finally announces some token level of support for solar power, the Liberals can say it was their idea (but at least the opposition is not going to block support for solar power). Instead, they'll argue against whatever form of carbon trading Rudd chooses and just refer to their 'solar plan' as the best way forward.

I guess we have to be thankful for small steps forward? Adding a significant cost of carbon to the economy at a time when consumers are starting to feel pain on several fronts is going to give the opposition plenty of things to bleat about.

The Libs must be fond of wind power, too - since being demolished at the election they've started flipping around like a turbine.

It could just be a bit of wedge politics of course - they can always hope that Labor does the sensible thing and adopts this policy, then turn around and call them economy wrecking greenies...

If you look at some recent threads the Libs don't look so bad. Statewise Brumby is a hypocrite on road use, Federally Ferguson is as big a coal industry shill and gas spendthrift as his Coal-ition predecessor. Garrett isn't up to organising a simple 5c deposit on plastic bags. Meanwhile Abbott commutes to Parliament by pushbike while Turnbull apparently takes the bus. FWIW I strongly agree with Howard on nuclear.

However due to the so-so German experience with feed-in solar tariffs and the non-arrival of concentrating solar baseload I reserve judgement on Hunt's views. As you say talk is cheap.

What non-arrival of baseload solar thermal ?

The stuff is going gangbusters elsewhere - we just need to import it back into the country...

If you’ve got access to grid electricity, solar panels are currently financial lunacy. The solar system I’m currently being quoted on (thanks to commenter wilful for the tip) costs about $12,000, and generates about $225 worth of electricity every year. By contrast, if I left that $12,000 in the bank, I’d get at least double that after tax. If I put the money into a share fund, over the course of a decade I’d probably do much better again.

If and probably.

The fundamental assumption here is that things will remain the same.
Doing the analysis this way when we know that things will not remain the same is questionable.

Knowing, as the author indicates he does, that things will not remain the same, the question is "How much are you prepared to pay for light?" NOT I will get 6% (with a possible recession imminent) or more if I put it into a fund (really, given recent history?).

I await the input of those with solar on their roof, but I do question the requirement for large systems before you qualify for these rebates. Why not for smaller easier to install systems that just run your lights? At least at first, what if we ALL did that? Instead of a small minority of us attempting to run our entire house on solar?

But it is interesting the libs have made this move... maybe to differentiate themselves from those coal fired unionists running the labour party...

The trouble with small 240v systems is the relatively fixed cost of approved inverters, costing at least a few hundred dollars. The powerco may or may not spring for the cost of an import-export meter. These are digital with no spinning disc. As a next step these could be integrated with appliance controllers.

If we are going to try and charge battery cars at home we really need bigger systems, say 5 kw peak. In sunny weather that might generate 20 kwh per day. I believe car-to-grid PV or house based microstorage would be a more robust solution to baseload than concentrating solar. Steam boilers out in the desert will disappoint when it rains for a week and there is machinery to break down as well as line losses. The trouble is that long cycle life batteries are exorbitantly expensive, as is polycrystalline silicon. We need major cost cuts (say 80%) in both PV and batteries.

What sized system would you need to install to power household lights (low power or LED) at 12V?

Not 240V. No inverter. No exporting to the grid. No plug in cars.

Good question since I haven't used fixed LEDs yet. A 12 volt, battery or campervan dealer may be able to advise. You also want to think about concealed wiring and unobtrusive switches. A single panel (say 40w peak) tilted north charging a deep cycle lead acid battery (say 40 Ah) via a voltage regulator will prevent overcharging, excessive drawdown and voltage taper. You want to wire the LEDs or fluoros in parallel so each light gets the 12v then add up the amp hours to make sure the system can cope. Put it together in the shop before taking it home. I suspect if you want reading quality light in just one room you could be looking at least $A500 ie it will take years to pay back if the existing lights are mains powered.

So for about a bit over a thousand (say) you could probably run most of the lights in a house? Given that not all lights are on at the same time... for very long.

So the $8000 could be used to subsidise that many more houses, converting them all to run just the lights on solar - which is between 10 - 20% of the power used in a house.

Because even with that $8000 subsidy, only the truly motivated are going to go ahead. It's a big operation. But just doing the lights might see a greater uptake. I'm guessing that it should really only be a day (or two) to do the conversion.

Further, if it were mandated that all new houses, where possible, should be built this way from the outset... then the financial "payback" argument is moot.. surely.

In the event of cloudy weather, the lights of course can still be powered by the mains using a 240V to 12v power supply or simply a battery charger... still cheaper than an inverter.

That's what I'm getting at... how to migrate usage to solar.

Thanks Boof.

If you had to describe a renewable energy source that is technically achievable and financially viable right now, it would be solar thermal.

(Granted the financial viability depends on carbon credits).

If you had to describe a country that was ideally suited to solar thermal, you could save yourself a lot of trouble by just pointing to Australia.

Incredibly, the Liberals seem to have realised this. Another five or ten reversals like this would be almost enough to make me vote liberal again.

Solar is obviously the way to go for a continent like Australia.

However, at the risk of being accused of meddling in politics of another country, I would respectfully suggest that A$0.44/kwh is far too high a price to pay for it. By co-deploying the Atmospheric Vortex Engine as a "bottoming cycle" for either CSE (70% waste heat) or central PV (80% waste heat) the net cost of electricity could be cut virtually in half.

This is not even counting the "free" energy (actually stored solar) from the Convective Avialable Potential Energy, highly abundant and harvestable during the summer (extending well into the evening hours).

May the AVE-Force be with you.