How Australia Perfected Solar Power and Then Went Back to Coal

In the 1980s Australia led the world in solar technology. Fast-forward to 2014, and one of the country's largest solar farms has been canned. So what happened?

All images courtesy of the Clean Energy Council

There was a time in the 1980s when Australia led the world in solar technology. To begin with, Australia receives more solar radiation per square foot than anywhere on the planet, and that presents an obvious advantage. But the true catalyst was geography: two thirds of the country consists of uninhabited desert. This posed problems for engineers tasked with constructing a national telephone network in the early 1970s. The solution was to build remote relay stations powered with solar energy, which at the time was a fledgling, expensive technology. Yet by 1978 the national provider, Telecom, had developed reliable solar cells that could be installed affordably across the country and be infrequently maintained. International recognition came in 1983 when Perth was tapped with hosting the Solar World Congress.

Fast-forward to 2014 and Australian solar power is in a very different place. This week a proposed solar farm with 2,000 dishes-capable of powering 30,000 homes-was canceled amid uncertainty about the future of renewable energy. This comes at a time when every one of the country's proposed solar farms are on hold and coal operators push legislation to strangle solar proliferation. So what happened?

"Power generators and NSPs (network service providers) are scared," says Giles Parkinson, who is the editor of the green news site Renew Economy. "There will always be a grid, but it's just a question of where that power comes from. Now we're at the point where rooftop solar, subsidized by solar farms, is becoming a cheaper option. You see this with the internet affecting telcos, with digital cameras and film-it's inevitable with new technology. But in Australia it's catastrophic because we used to be leaders, but we're now going backwards."

Like most of the world, Australia swings between climate disavowal and action. In the 1980s Australian solar power was federally funded. Then, in the mid 90s, the incoming government scrapped the Energy Research and Development Corporation. Broadly speaking coal became the energy source of choice, until July 2012, when Australia introduced a fixed-price tax on carbon emissions. This carbon tax was part of a slate of climate initiatives called the Clean Energy Plan, which also legislated that 20 percent of electricity would come from renewables by 2020.

Now the weather-vane has swung back, with a center-right government coming to power in 2013, promising to repeal the "job destroying carbon tax." They succeeded on July 17, and although they reluctantly retained the binder on renewables, they placed the entire program "under review." According to Dr. Richard Corkish, who is the COO for the Australian Center for Advanced Photovoltaics, "under review" is clever wording as it "effectively achieves the same thing as a repeal."

Here's why: For a proposed solar farm to get financing, they need a signed power-purchase agreement from a distributor, stipulating exactly how much power they'll buy. But given distributors are no longer required to buy renewable energy, and given their business models are threatened by solar, they're not signing the agreements. The result is that solar farms don't get built. According to Dr. Corkish this is what happened to the aforementioned solar farm. "We were hoping they could hold out until the review finished," he said. "But uncertainty is enough and the investors ran. It's a terrible shame."

According to Australia's Clean Energy Council, there are four large-scale solar farms currently under construction and another 13 in development, all with uncertain futures. As their Acting Chief Executive, Kane Thornton, explained via email, "Australia's Renewable Energy Target is the critical policy for all renewable energy projects. While large scale solar projects also receive support from other Australian Government programs, without the Renewable Energy Target they wouldn't get built."

Not only is financial uncertainty putting solar technology on hold, generators and distributors are pushing legislation to repress it, which, according to Giles Parkinson, is "basically a conspiracy." As he says, "none of the incumbents want to see more solar. Generators are fucked and they know it. NSPs will eventually profit from solar, but they're focused on the short term, so they're resisting."

One example is in the northern state of Queensland, where power companies from July can charge their customers "an additional amount... for the purchase of electricity from renewable or environmentally friendly sources." There are several conditions to this, but the upshot is that companies can now charge heavy solar consumers (mostly businesses) around $500 (£302) for every service, including meter readings. This piece of legislation, which is basically a deterrent to solar, was quietly approved at the behest of the state's coal lobbyists, with very little scrutiny.

This suppression of solar is widespread, says Dr. Anna Bruce, who is an engineering lecturer at the University of New South Wales. "NSPs are doing all they can to stop it. They're capping the amount of solar power that can be fed into the grid in certain areas, and they've introduced bans on exporting. The justification is that we need the network. If every home installs solar, the network won't exist."

But wouldn't this behaviour attract the attention of some sort of consumer watchdog? Apparently not. Bruce claims that technological progress has outstripped the warning systems of advocacy groups, but Giles Parkinson says it goes further. "In Australia, we have this unique situation where regulators are run by state governments, and they see their role as protecting the incumbents, which are often the state power companies. It's a hopeless conflict of interest. Just a classic example of aging white men who don't understand the future."

Despite the gloom about the short term, most exponents of solar seem positive about the future. The consensus is that while governments come and go, the market will always demand the cheapest option. Eventually, it's hoped, solar will plunge power companies into something called the "death spiral." This is essentially when solar and battery technology allow consumers to use far less grid power, which will force costs onto an exponentially shrinking customer pool, which will encourage more to install solar. The grid will still exist, but customers will be using insufficient amounts of power to necessitate traditional generators, leaving solar farms to fill the gap.

If that sounds a little too much like hacktivist optimism, Parkinson insists Australians can at least claw back on the solar science front. "We've got the fundamentals," he says. "Lots of sun, expensive electricity, and smart people. We'll get there."

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