Category Archives: solar energy

solar technology keeps moving toward the centre

thin-film solar modules - a more flexible solution

thin-film solar modules – a more flexible solution

I’ve been hearing that the costs of solar installations are coming down, making the take-up easier and faster, but I haven’t spent the time to research exactly why this is happening, presumably world-wide. So now’s the time to do so. I thought I’d start with something I heard recently on a podcast about revolutionary thin solar cells…

Thin-film solar cells have been around for a while now, and they’re described well here. They’re only one micron thick, compared to traditional 350 microns-thick silicon-wafer cells, and they utilise superconductor materials, usually silicon-based, which are highly efficient absorbers of solar energy. However, according to Wikipedia, this new technology isn’t doing so well in the market-place, with only about 7% of market share, and not rising, though with crystalline silicon being replaced more and more by other materials (such as cadmium telluride, copper indium gallium selenide and amorphous silicon) there’s still hope for its future.

This technology was first utilised on a small scale in pocket calculators quite some time ago but it has been difficult to scale it up to the level of large-scale solar panels. There are problems with both stability and toxicity – cadmium for example is a poison that can accumulate in the food chain like mercury. It doesn’t look like it’s this or any other technological development that’s reducing costs or increasing efficiency, though of course they may do in the future, with graphene looking like a promising material.

So let’s return to the question of why solar has suddenly become much cheaper and is apparently set to get cheaper still. Large manufacturing investment and economies of scale seem to be a large part of the story. This means that the costs of solar modules now make up less than half of the total cost of what Ramez Naam calls ‘complete solar deployments at the utility scale’, and these other costs are also coming down as the industry ‘scales’. His article in Renew Economy from August last year makes projections based on the idea that ‘doubling of cumulative capacity tends to reduce prices by a predictable rate’, though he’s also prepared to heavily qualify such projections based on a multitude of possibly limiting factors. If all goes well, solar electricity costs will become less than half the cost of new coal or natural gas in a generation – without factoring in the climate costs of continuing fossil fuel usage. The extraordinary rise in solar energy usage in China, set to continue well into the future, bolsters the prediction, and India is also keen to incease usage, despite problems with domestic manufacturing and trade rules. Most panels are being imported from China and the USA, while domestic production struggles.

It’s interesting that solar and other renewable technologies are now being spruiked as mainstream by mainstream and even conservative sources, such as Fortune and oilprice.com. Fortune’s article also usefully points out how the cost of different power sources to the consumer is heavily dependent on government policies relating to fossil fuels and their alternatives, as well as to the natural assets of particular regions. Even so, it’s clear that the cost of fossil-fuel based electricity is rising everywhere while wind and solar electricity costs are falling, creating an increasingly clear-cut scenario for governments worldwide to deal with. Some governments are obviously facing it more squarely than others.

US residential solar costs. Beyond 2013, these are estimates, but already out of date it seems

US residential solar costs. Beyond 2013, these are estimates, but already out of date it seems

 

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Current trends in solar

Barak Obama talking up the solar power industry

Barak Obama talking up the solar power industry

i was reading an article recently called how solar power workswhich was quite informative, but it mentioned that some 41,000 homes in Australia had solar PVs on their rooves by the end of 2008, and this was expected to rise substantially by 2009. This sounded like a very small figure, and I wondered if there was more recent data. A quick search turned up a swag of articles charting the rise and rise of rooftop solar installations in recent years. The data in just about every article came from the Australian Clean Energy Regulator (ACER). Australia swept past 1 million domestic solar installations in March 2013 with solar advocates predicting a doubling, at minimum, within the following two years. That hasn’t happened, but still the take-up has been astonishing in the past six or seven years. This article from a month ago claims 1.3 million PVs, with another 170,000 systems going up annually, though it doesn’t quote sources. Others are saying that the industry is now ‘flagging’, due to the retreat of state-based subsidies, though the commercial sector is now getting in on the act, having recently tripled its share of the solar PV market to 15%. The current federal government seems unwilling to make any clear commitment to domestic solar, but the Clean Energy Finance Corp, which was established by the Gillard government, and which the Abbott government wants to axe, is now engaged in a deal with ET Solar, a Chinese company, to help finance the solarisation of shopping centres and other commercial energy users. Shopping centres, which operate all day virtually every day, would seem to be an ideal target for solar PV installation. Presumably these projects will go ahead as the Abbott government seems unable or unwilling to engage in Senate negotiations which will allow its policies, including those of axing the entities of previous governments, to progress.

There’s so much solar news around it’s hard to keep track of, but I’ll start locally, with South Australia. By the end of 2014 some 23% of SA homes had solar PV, a slight increase on the previous year. One effect has been to shift the peak power period from late afternoon to early evening (just after 7PM). South Australia leads the way with the highest proportion of panels, with Queensland close behind. Australia’s rapid adoption of rooftop solar is surpassed only by Japan. The Japanese are now voting decisively against nuclear energy with their panels.

SA-Bozing-day-solar

This graph  (from the Renew Economy website) shows that on Boxing Day last year (2014) rooftop solar in SA (the big yellow peak) reached one third of demand in the middle of the day, and averaged around 30% from 11.30am to 3.30pm. With our heavy reliance on wind power here, this means that these two renewable power sources accounted for some two thirds of demand during that period. Sadly, though, with the proposed reduction of the Renewable Energy Target, wind and solar (small and large scale) are being forced to compete with each other for more limited opportunities.

There are some short-term concerns. Clearly the federal government isn’t being particularly supportive of renewables, but it’s highly likely the conservatives will be out of office after the late 2016 election, after which there may be a little more investment certainty. There’s also clear evidence now that small-scale solar uptake is declining, though it’s still happening. Profit margins for solar companies are suffering in an increasingly competitive marketplace, so large-scale, more inherently profitable projects will likely be the way of the immediate future. Still, the greater affordability of solar PV over the last few years will ensure continued uptake, and a greater proportion of households taking advantage of the technology. According to a recent International Energy Association (IEA) publication:

The cost of PV modules has been divided by five in the last six years; the cost of full PV systems has been divided by almost three. The levelised cost of electricity of decentralised solar PV systems is approaching or falling below the variable portion of retail electricity prices that system owners pay in some markets, across residential and commercial segments.

The 2014 publication was a ‘technology roadmap’, updated from 2010. Based on the unexpectedly high recent uptake of solar PV, the IEA has revised upwards its share of global electricity production from 11% to 16% by 2050. But on the barriers to expansion, the IEA’s remarks in the foreword to this document read like a warning to the Australian government

Like most renewable energy sources and energy efficiency improvements, PV is very capital-intensive: almost all expenditures are made up-front. Keeping the cost of capital low is thus of primary importance for achieving this roadmap’s vision. But investment and finance are very responsive to the quality of policy making. Clear and credible signals from policy makers lower risks and inspire confidence. By contrast, where there is a record of policy incoherence, confusing signals or stop-and-go policy cycles, investors end up paying more for their finance, consumers pay more for their energy, and some projects that are needed simply will not go ahead. 

The four-year gap between each IEA roadmap may be too long, considering the substantial changes that can occur in the energy arena. There was greater growth in solar PV capacity in the 2010-2014 period than there was in the four previous decades. The possibilities of solar energy really began to catch on with the energy crisis of the seventies, and the technology has received a boost more recently due to climate change and the lack of effective leadership on the issue. The charge was led by European countries such as Germany and Italy, but since 2013 China has been leading the pack in solar PV adoption.

What, though, of the long-term future? That’s a subject best left for another post, but clearly solar is here to stay, and its energy share will continue to expand, a continued expansion that is causing problems for industries that have traditionally (though only over the past couple of centuries actually) profited from our expanding energy needs. Our future is bound up in how we can handle transitions that will be necessary if we are to maintain energy needs with a minimum of damage to our biosphere.

What is the future for renewable energy in Australia?

coffs-coast-climate_action-group-copyright-seenaustralia-001a-mv5y0v4cay562s49wi2_t460

It’s the energy of the future, according to its promoters. I’m talking about solar, wind and other sources of renewable energy. It seems, though, that due to ‘institutional dysfunction’, as one pundit describes it, renewable energy is facing a bleak future in Australia, at least in the short term.

Recently a review of the nation’s renewable energy target (RET), by a panel chosen by the Prime Minister’s office, has recommended substantially reducing the target. The panel was headed by a former chairman of Caltex Oil, Dick Warburton, who is unconvinced that increased carbon dioxide causes global warming. He’s wrong about that.

The RET is currently set at 41,000 gigawatts an hour of renewable energy by 2020, and it apparently represents a threat to the traditional energy companies at a time when electricity consumption is falling. As Ross Gittins points out in The Sydney Morning Herald, the fall in consumption over the last four years is unprecedented and has taken the industry completely by surprise.

So why has consumption fallen? According to an Australia Institute report by Dr Hugh Saddler, the decline has been entirely at the expense of coal-fired generators, many of which are struggling to be profitable. The main cause is simply an increase in energy-efficient buildings and appliances, due to regulations brought in in the late 90s. Other factors, in order of significance, include the economic shift from electricity-driven industry (with major steelworks, aluminium smelters and oil refineries, either shutting down or cutting back), the failure of many other electricity-guzzling industries to grow as expected, and, since 2010, consumer response to higher electricity prices and the carbon tax (either the real one or the slightly scarier one concocted by the conservatives in opposition). The price hikes, ironically, were largely a result of expenditure on upgraded poles and wires to meet expected new peaks in summer demand. The decreased residential usage provided intriguing proof that we can, if needs must, wean ourselves from ever-spiralling consumption. Meanwhile the increased capacity, for which consumers will continue to pay into the future, remains unused.

So what has this to do with renewable energy, and why does the Prime Minister’s panel recommend downgrading the RET? According to Peter Martin, the economics editor of The Age, it’s because the renewable energy sector has gotten too big for its boots and is significantly cutting into the profits of the fossil fuel industries. However, the repealing of the carbon tax was a big win for those industries, and the abandoning of the old RET, assuming the panel’s recommendations will be acted upon, will be another boost.

It looks like the federal government, probably under pressure from the fossil fuel lobby, is set to reduce or abandon the RET. The Warburton panel was set up in February by a Prime Minister who has stated at a public meeting that anthropogenic global warming is ‘bullshit’ (though he has tried to backpedal furiously from this since). The conservatives have chosen to ignore a review of the RET by the Climate Change Authority, released in December 2012. The Climate Change Authority was set up under the Gillard labor government in July 2012 to conduct climate change research and to regularly review associated policies, but the conservatives are trying to scrap it, though their first attempt was blocked in the Senate in March of this year, and the Authority now appears to be in limbo. It’s difficult not to conclude that the Warburton panel, which includes other industry heavyweights, has been set up to deliver the government what it wants.

So, bearing in mind the guidelines to problems and solutions I’ve taken from David Waltner-Toews, what exactly are the problems here, and how can we move towards solutions?

Not surprisingly, there’s more than one problem. For example, one problem is with the Warburton panel itself. The strong perception within the renewable energy sector and its potential investors is that the panel’s findings are already known, and that RET targets will be reduced or abandoned, leading to job losses and a substantial loss in investor confidence. In fact investors are already backing out because of the new climate of uncertainty.

Of course the panel isn’t bent on destruction. It presumably sees the problem elsewhere – a substantial decrease, at least domestically, in fossil fuel consumption. But why would anyone want to preserve a highly polluting industry when there are clean alternatives available? Well I can think of two reasons, apart from the obvious vested interests. First, job losses. The Greens and other clean energy advocates are heavily emphasising the job and investment losses in that market if the RET were to be abandoned, but of course the fall in consumption together with the challenge of the new technologies were leading to the same problems on the other side, and of course losses on one side can’t be simplistically balanced by gains on the other, and I’ve no idea how the actual numbers would fall out. Second, these industries aren’t simply limited to the domestic market. In fact the industry has long been heavily subsidised by the federal government because its exports are a major contributor to government revenues and to foreign exchange earnings. The government protection of the industry has of course been strongly criticised by the renewable energy sector, which is keen to point out that Australia is the highest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, with the fossil fuel industry playing the primary role in maintaining that record. But it’s difficult, especially for a conservative government with little obvious concern for the greenhouse issue, to see beyond the substantial revenues that coal and natural gas are bringing in.

Before we start talking solutions, we need to squarely face the evidence. Anthropogenic global warming is happening, and climate scientists are only in disagreement about rates and precise consequences in what is an enormously complex climate system. As just mentioned, Australians  have the worst per capita record in the world in contributing to the problem, and our coal industry produces about 38% of our total greenhouse gas emissions.

The aim should be to reduce our emissions while still providing all the energy required to maintain our lifestyles – though all the while being mindful that some tweaking of those lifestyles might substantially reduce emissions. We need to win the battle with government, as to the value and the necessity of emissions reduction, but we also need to be realistic. How much of our energy needs can be met by renewables, now and in the near future? Is it worth trying to clean up the fossil fuel industry? Is clean coal a possibility, or a myth?

On this latter issue, a US organisation, the Union of Concerned Scientists, has this to say:

Technology is evolving that has the potential to substantially reduce coal’s contribution to global warming by capturing carbon emissions before they are emitted. This technology could become an important part of the battle against global warming, but it remains to be seen whether it will work at a commercial scale and at what cost.

So here’s one weighty problem. We’re still heavily reliant on fossil fuels, though that reliance is reducing, as well as our overall energy usage. Reduced energy usage is seen as a problem rather than a victory, which may be a perception problem rather than a real problem, but it is a real problem insofar as the fossil fuel industry is losing revenue locally, which is affecting its ability to be competitive in the overseas market. Around 70% of Australia’s coal production is sent overseas, making Australia proportionally the world’s largest coal exporter. Coal is our second biggest export earner, worth more than $40 billion per annum.

Another problem is that we’re paying, into the future, for the new infrastructure above-mentioned. Arguably, we’re paying for the lack of foresight of the fossil fuel industry, which is passing on to the consumer the costs of an unnecessary extra capacity. Presumably if more consumers switch to solar for their domestic energy supply, this infrastructure cost burden will be shared among fewer people.

Also, those that want to reduce Australia’s carbon emissions through reduction of our fossil fuel production and exports have to counter the argument that our exports represent some 5% of global coal consumption, while the economic cost to us of cutting exports would be very substantial. It’s the ‘great pain for little gain’ argument.

There’s also another good point made by Chris Greig, Professor of Energy Strategy at the University of Queensland. We make the mistake, living as we do in an energy-rich nation, of assuming that our supply of coal is simply adding to the abundance, with disastrous consequences, but there are many parts of the world that are energy-poor, and would be deprived of opportunities to rise from poverty if the fuel supply from nations such as ours were to be cut off. By all means we should try to improve the efficiency of the fuel we export, and we should be looking to renewable alternatives in these energy-deprived regions, but some renewables are not suitable for some regions, and most cannot deliver base-load power as they currently stand. There are no easy solutions to this problem. Curently – and this returns me to my previous post – there’s a huge problem of indoor pollution in developing countries due to the lack of a clean, or cleaner, energy supply. Professor Greig effectively summarises the issue:

Few Australians realise that two million people in developing countries die each year due to indoor air pollution from biomass combustion – typically a black smoke containing fine particulates, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides. The indirect consequences are also far-reaching. The relentless harvesting of biomass wood for fuel is responsible for depleting groundwater systems and declining agricultural productivity, which in turn leads to food and water shortages and reinforces the poverty cycle. And let’s not forget the one billion tonnes of CO2 that are released annually as a result of this rudimentary burning of biomass materials.

All of this is further evidence of the complexity and messiness of the issues involved. Clearly they won’t be fully covered in this post, and I’ll be returning to the subject in the future, to look at nuclear power among other things. I’ve also got Naomi Klein’s monumental opus, This changes everything, a tale of climate change and capitalism, to plough through.

Meanwhile, the Australian situation with regard to renewables is still very much up in the air, with Federal Environment Minister now making assurances that the RET will not be scrapped, while not ruling out a downgrading. Climate Change Authority head Bernie Fraser, along with Business SA, suggest retaining the 41,000GWh target but extending the time-frame beyond 2020. This might help to maintain business investment while taking a little pressure off the fossil fuel industry, which might take the opportunity to review and improve future planning, with perhaps a greater focus on exports.

Whatever the future for all these businesses and technologies, the aim of a more sustainable, less carbon-intensive and less polluting energy supply should be paramount. If that means job losses as the dirtiest and least efficient power plants are closed, then that needs to be faced, unless they can be profitably cleaned up.

Having said that, Australia’s future lies in renewables, especially wind and solar. Our current government seems to be having trouble taking the long view on this, and it’s positively embarrassing to find a country that is in many areas among the most modern and technologically developed in the world falling behind so badly in a field we should be leading. I await with interest the government’s coming announcement on the RET. I’m sure they realise what’s at stake.