Scientists urge government to keep solar dreams alive

Leading scientists have called on both major political parties not to ‘unintentionally kill’ solar cell research in Australia by cutting off grant funding from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA).

Australia’s two top solar cell researchers said plans by the Turnbull Government to revoke ARENA’s ability to issue research grants – and return $1.3 billion of its unspent funds to consolidated revenue – will stall advances being made in that could deliver major gains in solar efficiency. The Labor Opposition has not committed to retain ARENA’s grant funding, promising only to reserve $305 million of the unspent funds for large solar thermal demonstration projects.

Not only would the research benefit solar technology, but it also promises economic benefit for the country, according to The University of New South Wales (UNSW).

“I don’t think this is a deliberate attempt to wipe out research into photovoltaics in this country – it’s more a case that the implications have slipped below the radar – but that’s what could happen,” director of UNSW’s Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics (ACAP) Martin Green said.

UNSW’s Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics director and solar cell researcher Martin Green
UNSW’s Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics director and solar cell researcher Martin Green

“Continuity in funding is essential in solar cell research, so if you lose your funding for even a year or so, a lot of your expertise disappears as teams are disbanded.

“Our researchers would find employment overseas very easily, and we’d lose that expertise.”

Andrew Blakers from the Australian National University (ANU) said photovoltaics and wind energy combined accounts for all new generation capacity being installed each year in Australia, and 50 per cent worldwide, and is doubling every four years.

“Australia has a tremendous track record of leadership in photovoltaics. Severe curtailment of ARENA grants will cause loss of that leadership, loss of commercial opportunities, loss of hundreds of jobs, and severe downscaling of PhD and undergraduate student opportunities,” he said.

Gains in efficiency alone, made possible by PERC cells, are forecast to save $750 million in Australia’s electricity generation over the next 10 years. PERC cells were invented at UNSW by Blakers, Green and others and are now becoming the commercial standard globally, with sales of US$9 billion a year.

But advances in photovoltaics continue, promising to deliver better efficiencies and ever cheaper cells.

In the past month, UNSW researchers made world headlines when they announced notable advances in solar cell research, establishing a new efficiency record of 34.5 per cent for an unfocussed prism mini-module, and the development of a new flexible solar cell for zero-energy buildings that is non-toxic and cheap to manufacture.

“Grant funding may be stripped from ARENA at a time when even the world’s largest oil companies are sinking billions into electric battery storage systems and wind farms.”

ANU researchers are working on advanced materials and high efficiency tandem cell designs, and are showing great promise in further decreasing the costs of solar energy.

“Things are moving faster in solar cell efficiency than most experts expected, and that’s good news for solar energy,” Mr Green said.

“Extracting more energy from every beam of sunlight is critical to reducing the cost of electricity generated by solar cells, as it lowers the investment needed, delivering payback faster.”

ARENA is the major funder for Australia’s solar researcher labs, and Mr Green said career researchers stand to lose their jobs if the funding is cut, leaving many PhD students in limbo and severely curtailing training and expertise in the renewable sector.

“Grant funding may be stripped from ARENA at a time when even the world’s largest oil companies are sinking billions into electric battery storage systems and wind farms, and when a record US$286 billion was invested in renewables in the past year alone (or US$2.3 trillion over the past 12 years).

“It is important to continue and accelerate research and development spending to support the renewable energy revolution now under way,” Mr Blakers said.

“Photovoltaics and wind energy are fundamentally reshaping the way economies of the world are powered, so it’s a critical time for Australia to stay in the game if it is to reap further benefits from its leading position in research and education.”

Since its establishment in 2012, ARENA has furnished $1 billion to 250 renewable energy commercialisation projects, including 155 megawatt solar farms in Broken Hill and Nyngan, and the world-first grid connected wave power array in Perth. But it has also kickstarted a wave of research that has accelerated renewable technology in Australia.

Last month, 62 senior energy researchers wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Malcolm Turbull calling on his government to reverse its decision to end the grant funding by ARENA.

“Grant-supported renewable energy R&D and education is a crucial part of climate change mitigation, and will be seriously downgraded by this new policy,” it stated.

Recently, 130 more researchers and 61 undergraduate students wrote to Environment Minister Greg Hunt, making the same call.