Australia’s first commercial installation of printed solar cells, made using specialised semiconducting inks and printed using a conventional reel-to-reel printer, has been installed on a factory roof in Newcastle.
The 200 square metre array was installed in just one day by a team of five people. No other energy solution is as lightweight, as quick to manufacture, or as easy to install on this scale.
Our research team manufactured the solar modules using standard printing techniques; in fact, the machine that we use typically makes wine labels. Each solar cell consists of several individual layers printed on top of each other, which are then connected in series to form a bank of cells. These cells are then connected in parallel to form a solar module.
Since 1996, we have progressed from making tiny, millimetre-sized solar cells to the first commercial installation. In the latest installation each module is ten metres long and sandwiched between two layers of recyclable plastic.
At the core of the technology are the specialised semiconducting polymer-based inks that we have developed. This group of materials has fundamentally altered our ability to build electronic devices; replacing hard, rigid, glass-like materials such as silicon with flexible inks and paints that can be printed or coated over vast areas at extremely low cost.
As a result, these modules cost less than A$10 per square metre when manufactured at scale. This means it would take only 2-3 years to become cost-competitive with other technologies, even at efficiencies of only 2-3%.
These printed solar modules could conceivably be installed onto any roof or structure using simple adhesive tape and connected to wires using simple press-studs. The new installation at Newcastle is an important milestone on the path towards commercialisation of the technology – we will spend the next six months testing its performance and durability before removing and recycling the materials.
We think this technology has enormous potential. Obviously our technology is still at the trial stage, but our vision is a world in which every building in every city in every country has printed solar cells generating low-cost sustainable energy for everyone. This latest installation has brought the goal of solar roofs, walls and windows a step closer.
Ultimately, we imagine that these solar cells could even benefit those people who don’t own or have access to roof space. People who live in apartment complexes, for example, could potentially sign up to a plan that lets them pay to access the power generated by cells installed by the building’s owner or body corporate, and need never necessarily “own” the infrastructure outright.
But in a fractured and uncertain energy policy landscape, this new technology is a clear illustration of the value of taking power into one’s own hands.
The keenly awaited report on retail electricity prices, released this week by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), has made some controversial recommendations – not least the call to wind up the scheme that offers incentives for household solar nearly ten years early.
The report recommends that the small-scale renewable energy scheme (SRES) should be abolished by 2021. It also calls on state governments to fund solar feed-in tariffs through their budgets, rather than through consumers’ energy bills.
The ACCC has concluded that offering subsidies for household solar was a well-intentioned but ultimately misguided policy. Solar schemes were too generous, unfairly disadvantaged lower-income households, and failed to adjust to the changing economics of household solar.
The lesson for policy-makers is that good policy must keep costs down as Australia navigates the transition to a low-emissions economy in the future. Failure to do this risks losing the support of consumers and voters.
Rooftop solar schemes were much more popular than anticipated. This might sound like the sign of a good policy. But in reality it was more like designing a car with an accelerator but no brakes.
Generous feed-in tariffs and falling small-scale solar installation costs encouraged more households to install solar than were initially expected. Premium feed-in tariffs were well above what generators were paid for their electricity production. Historically solar feed-in tariffs paid households were between 16c and 60c per kilowatt-hour, while wholesale prices were less than 5c per kWh.
At the same time, installation costs for solar panels fell from around A$18,000 for a 1.5kW system in 2007, to around A$5,000 for a 3kW system today. The SRES subsidy for solar installations was not linked to the actual installation cost or the cost above the break-even price. So the SRES became relatively more generous as installation costs fell.
As solar penetration increased, and network costs rose to cover this, it became increasingly attractive for households to install solar panels. In Queensland, the initial cost forecast for the solar bonus scheme was A$15 million. Actual payments were more than 20 times that in 2014-15, at A$319 million. And the environmental benefits weren’t big enough to justify that cost, as other policies have reduced emissions at a lower cost. The large-scale renewable energy target reduced emissions for A$32 per tonne, while household solar panels reduced emissions at a cost of more than A$175 per tonne.
In most states, premium feed-in tariffs and rooftop solar subsidies are funded through higher bills for all consumers. Everyone pays the costs, yet only those with panels receive the benefits. That means the costs fall disproportionately on lower-income households and those who rent rather than own their home.
The ACCC report recommends the SRES be wound up nearly 10 years ahead of schedule, because the subsidies are no longer financially justifiable. This would maintain the support for current solar installations but remove subsidies for new solar installations from 2021.
The report also recommends removing the direct costs of feed-in tariffs from electricity bills. Instead, state governments should directly cover the costs of premium feed-in tariffs. The Queensland government has already made this move.
Of course, governments still have to find the money from elsewhere in their revenues, which means taxpayers are still footing the bill. But the new arrangement would at least remove the current unfair burden on households without solar.
Fixing the mistakes
How can governments avoid making similar policy mistakes in the future? The ACCC’s recommendations, together with the proposed National Energy Guarantee (NEG), provide a solid foundation for Australia’s future energy policy.
First, the future is hard to predict, so good policy adapts to change. The NEG provides a flexible framework to direct energy policy towards a low-emission, high-reliability, low-cost future. Reviewing and adjusting the emissions target along the way will enable Australia’s energy policy to respond to new technologies and shifting cost structures, while maintaining consistency with economy-wide targets.
Second, it is hard to pick winners, so good policy creates clear market signals. The NEG provides the energy industry with clear expectations, but is technology-agnostic and minimises government intervention. This encourages the market to find the most cost-effective way to reduce emissions and ensure reliability.
The ACCC report also recommends simplifying retail electricity offers, which would make it easier for consumers to find a good deal, and in turn making the market more competitive.
Politicians have an opportunity to draw a line in the sand on narrow, technology-specific policies such the SRES. An integrated energy and climate policy should focus on good design, and then step back and let the market pick the winners.
The rate of growth in residential rooftop solar photovoltaics (PV) in Australia since 2008 has been nothing short of breathtaking.
Our new research suggests that the households most likely to join in the solar spree are those that are affluent enough to afford the upfront investment, but not so wealthy that they don’t worry about their future power bills.
Australia now has the highest penetration of residential rooftop PV of any country in the world, with the technology having been installed on one in five freestanding or semi-detached homes. In the market-leading states of Queensland and South Australia this ratio is about one in three, and Western Australia is not far behind, with one in four having PV.
While PV panels give households more control over their electricity bills, and each new installation helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the market’s rapid expansion has posed significant challenges for the management of the electricity system as a whole.
Unlike other industries where goods can be warehoused or stockpiled to manage fluctuations in supply and demand, electricity is not yet readily storable. Storage options such as batteries are now commercially available, but haven’t yet reached widespread use. This means that a system operator is required to keep the grid balanced in real time, ideally with just the right amount of capacity and backup to manage shocks in supply or demand.
Securing the right amount of generation capacity for the electricity grid relies on long-term planning, informed by accurate supply and demand forecasts. Too much investment means excessive prices or assets lying idle (or both). Too little means longer, deeper or more frequent blackouts.
But as solar panels spread rapidly through the suburbs, the job of forecasting supply and demand is getting much harder.
This is because the commercial history of residential rooftop PV has been too short, and the pace of change too fast, for a clear uptake trend to be established. Previous attempts to predict the market’s continuing growth have thus entailed a lot of guesswork.
Why do people buy solar panels?
One way to improve our understanding is to talk to consumers directly about their purchasing intentions and decisions. The trick is to find out what prompts householders to take that final step from considering investing in solar panels, to actually buying them.
We found that the decision to go solar was driven largely by housholds’ concerns over rising electricity bills and the influence that economic life events have over perceptions of affordability.
But the households that tended to adopt PV were also those that were affluent enough not to be put off by the relatively large upfront cost.
This combination of having access to funds, while at the same time being concerned about future electricity prices, appears to be a broadly middle-class trait.
While the upfront cost of PV can deter lower-income households, this can be overcome by receiving an offer that is too good to refuse, or if concerns about ongoing electricity bills are acute – particularly in the case of retirees.
Electricity price uncertainty is a particular concern for retirees, who typically have a lower income. We found that retirees were more likely than non-retirees to invest in solar panels, all else being equal. Retirees, like many people who invest in solar power, seem to view buying solar panels as being like entering into a long-term contract for electricity supply, in that it provides price certainty over the life of the PV system.
We also found that while the idea of self-sufficiency was important for developing an intention to buy solar panels, this motivation later fell away among households that went ahead and bought them. This could be because householders who buy solar panels, but find themselves still relying significantly on the grid, may conclude that self-sufficiency isn’t achievable after all.
About one-third of those who said they intended to buy solar panels cited environmental concerns as a reason for their interest. Yet this factor did not significantly increase the odds of them going on to adopt the technology. This suggests that when it comes to the crunch, household finances are often the crucial determining factor.
We also found the chances of adopting solar panels were highest for homes with three or four bedrooms. Smaller homes may face practical limitations regarding roof space, whereas homes with five bedrooms or more are likely to be more valuable, suggesting that these householders may sit above a wealth threshold beyond which they are unconcerned about electricity bills.
But perhaps our most important finding is that analysis of household survey data can be useful to forecasters. Knowing who is adopting rooftop PV – and why – should enable better predictions to be made about the technology’s continuing expansion, including the crucial question of when the market might reach its saturation point.
The research paper can be downloaded here for free until August 1, 2018.
Can you see a window as you are reading this article?
Windows have been ubiquitous in society for centuries, filling our homes and workplaces with natural light. But what if they could also generate electricity? What if your humble window could help charge your phone, or boil your kettle?
With between 5 billion and 7 billion square metres of glass surface in the United States alone, solar windows would offer a great way to harness the Sun’s energy. Our research represents a step toward this goal, by showing how to make solar panels that still let through enough light to function as a window.
The economics of renewable energy are becoming increasingly favourable. In Australia, and many other parts of the world, silicon solar cells already dominate the rooftop market.
Rooftop solar power offers an increasingly cheap and efficient way to generate electricity.
But while great for roofs, these silicon modules are opaque and bulky. To design a solar cell suitable for windows, we have to think outside the box.
When we put a solar panel on a roof, we want it to absorb as much sunlight as possible, so that it can generate the maximum amount of power. For a window, there is inevitably a trade-off between absorbing light to turn into electricity, and transmitting light so we can still see through the window.
When thinking about a cell that could be fitted to a window, one of the key parameters is known as the average visible transmittance (AVT). This is the percentage of visible light (as opposed to other wavelengths, like infrared or ultraviolet) hitting the window that travels through it and emerges on the other side.
Of course we don’t want the solar window to absorb so much light that we can longer see out of it. Nor do we want it to let so much light through that it hardly generates any solar power. So scientists have been trying to find a happy medium between high electrical efficiency and a high AVT.
A matter of voltage
An AVT of 25% is generally considered a benchmark for solar windows. But letting a quarter of the light travel through the solar cell makes it hard to generate a lot of current, which is why the efficiency of semitransparent cells has so far been low.
But note that electrical power depends on two factors: current and voltage. In our recent research, we decided to focus on upping the voltage. We carefully selected new organic absorber materials that have been shown to produce high voltage in non-transparent cells.
When placed in a semitransparent solar cell, the voltage was also high, as it was not significantly lowered by the large amount of transmitted light. And so, although the current was lowered, compared to opaque cells, the higher voltage allowed us to achieve a higher efficiency than previous semitransparent cells.
Having got this far, the key question is: what would windows look like if they were made of our new semitransparent cells?
Do you see what I see?
If your friend is wearing a red shirt, when you view them through a window, their shirt should appear red. That seems obvious, as it will definitely be the case for a glass window.
But because semitransparent solar cells absorb some of the light we see in the visible spectrum, we need to think more carefully about this colour-rendering property. We can measure how well the cell can accurately present an image by calculating what’s called the colour rendering index, or CRI. Our investigation showed that changing the thickness of the absorbing layer can not only affect the electrical power the cell can produce, but also changes its ability to depict colours accurately.
A different prospective approach, which can lead to excellent CRIs, is to replace the organic absorber material with one that absorbs energy from the sun outside the visible range. This means the cell will appear as normal glass to the human eye, as the solar conversion is happening in the infrared range.
However, this places limitations on the efficiency the cells can achieve as it severely limits the amount of power from the sun that can be converted to electricity.
So far we have created our cells only at a small, prototype scale. There are still several hurdles in the way before we can make large, efficient solar windows. In particular, the transparent electrodes used to collect charge from these cells can be brittle and contain rare elements, such as indium.
Together, PV and wind represent 5.5% of current energy generation (as at the end of 2016), but crucially they constituted almost half of all net new generation capacity installed worldwide during last year.
It is probable that construction of new coal power stations will decline, possibly quite rapidly, because PV and wind are now cost-competitive almost everywhere.
Hydro is still important in developing countries that still have rivers to dam. Meanwhile, other low-emission technologies such as nuclear, bio-energy, solar thermal and geothermal have small market shares.
This is double to triple the rate of recent years, and a welcome return to growth after several years of subdued activity due to political uncertainty over the RET.
If this rate is maintained, then by 2030 more than half of Australian electricity will come from renewable energy and Australia will have met its pledge under the Paris climate agreement purely through emissions savings within the electricity industry.
To take the idea further, if Australia were to double the current combined PV and wind installation rate to 6GW per year, it would reach 100% renewable electricity in about 2033. Modelling by my research group suggests that this would not be difficult, given that these technologies are now cheaper than electricity from new-build coal and gas.
Renewable future in reach
The prescription for an affordable, stable and achievable 100% renewable electricity grid is relatively straightforward:
Use mainly PV and wind. These technologies are cheaper than other low-emission technologies, and Australia has plenty of sunshine and wind, which is why these technologies have already been widely deployed. This means that, compared with other renewables, they have more reliable price projections, and avoid the need for heroic assumptions about the success of more speculative clean energy options.
Distribute generation over a very large area. Spreading wind and PV facilities over wide areas – say a million square kilometres from north Queensland to Tasmania – allows access to a wide range of different weather, and also helps to smooth out peaks in users’ demand.
Build interconnectors. Link up the wide-ranging network of PV and wind with high-voltage power lines of the type already used to move electricity between states.
Fossil fuel generators currently provide another service to the grid, besides just generating electricity. They help to balance supply and demand, on timescales down to seconds, through the “inertial energy” stored in their heavy spinning generators.
But in the future this service can be performed by similar generators used in pumped hydro systems. And supply and demand can also be matched with the help of fast-response batteries, demand management, and “synthetic inertia” from PV and wind farms.
Abundant anecdotal evidence suggests that wind and PV energy price has fallen to A$60-70 per MWh this year as the industry takes off. Prices are likely to dip below A$50 per MWh within a few years, to match current international benchmark prices. Thus, the net cost of moving to a 100% renewable electricity system over the next 15 years is zero compared with continuing to build and maintain facilities for the current fossil-fuelled system.
Gas can no longer compete with wind and PV for delivery of electricity. Electric heat pumps are driving gas out of water and space heating. Even for delivery of high-temperature heat for industry, gas must cost less than A$10 per gigajoule to compete with electric furnaces powered by wind and PV power costing A$50 per MWh.
Importantly, the more that low-cost PV and wind is deployed in the current high-cost electricity environment, the more they will reduce prices.
Then there is the issue of other types of energy use besides electricity – such as transport, heating, and industry. The cheapest way to make these energy sources green is to electrify virtually everything, and then plug them into an electricity grid powered by renewables.
A 55% reduction in Australian greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved by conversion of the electricity grid to renewables, together with mass adoption of electric vehicles for land transport and electric heat pumps for heating and cooling. Beyond this, we can develop renewable electric-driven pathways to manufacture hydrocarbon-based fuels and chemicals, primarily through electrolysis of water to obtain hydrogen and carbon capture from the atmosphere, to achieve an 83% reduction in emissions (with the residual 17% of emissions coming mainly from agriculture and land clearing).
Doing all of this would mean tripling the amount of electricity we produce, according to my research group’s preliminary estimate.
But there is no shortage of solar and wind energy to achieve this, and prices are rapidly falling. We can build a clean energy future at modest cost if we want to.
While there are now more solar panels in Australia than people, the many Australians who live in apartments have largely been locked out of this solar revolution by a minefield of red tape and potentially uninformed strata committees.
In the face of these challenges, Stucco, a small co-operative housing block in Sydney, embarked on a mission to take back the power. Hopefully their experiences can serve as a guide to how other apartment-dwellers can more readily go solar.
From an energy perspective, Stucco was a typical apartment block: each of its eight units had its own connection to the grid and was free to choose its own retailer, but was severely impeded from choosing to supply itself with on-site renewable energy.
Things changed in late 2015 when the co-op was awarded an Innovation Grant from the City of Sydney with a view to becoming the first apartment block in Australia to be equipped with solar and batteries.
A central part of Stucco’s plan was to share the locally produced renewable energy by converting the building into an “embedded network”, whereby the building has a single grid connection and manages the metering and billing of units internally.
Such a conversion seemed like an ideal solution for solar on apartments, but turned into an ideological battle with the electricity regulator that took months and hundreds of hours of pro bono legal support to resolve.
In this way the Stucco project grew to embody the struggle at the heart of the Australian electricity market: a battle between choice and control, between current regulations that mandate consumers to choose between incumbent retailers, and the public’s aspirations for green self-sufficiency.
A chicken and egg problem
Embedded networks have been around for decades. Yet if the Australian Energy Regulator had its way, they would be banned as soon as possible.
The reason for this is that they inhibit consumers’ choice of retailer: consumers are forced to buy their electricity from the building’s embedded network management company, which may exploit its monopoly power.
Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. At least one company in Germany allows apartment residents to buy power either from their preferred grid retailer or from the building’s solar-powered embedded network. This business model relies on Germany’s smart meter standards that ensure all market participants can access the data they require.
We currently find ourselves in a standoff. The regulator is waiting on companies to offer solar powered embedded networks that include retail competition, while companies are waiting on the regulator to create an accessible playing field that would make such services viable.
The recently released Finkel Report touches on this by recommending a “review of the regulation of individual power systems and microgrids”.
Stucco’s bespoke solution
In the absence of such a solution, Stucco made a unique agreement with the regulator: the co-op committed to cover fully the costs of installing a grid meter for any unit whose occupant wishes to exit the embedded network in the future.
Such a commitment was feasible because Stucco’s residents, as co-op members, have direct input into the management of the network including controlling prices (that are mandated to be cheaper than any grid offer). But it is difficult to image regular strata committees accepting such liabilities.
Embedded networks are therefore not the best general solution for retrofitting solar on apartments, at least not under current regulations. This is unfortunate because they represent the best utilisation of an apartment block’s solar resource (Stucco’s system provides more than 75% of the building’s electricity) and are therefore increasingly being adopted by developers.
Advice for apartments
The good news for residents of existing apartments is that there are easier routes to installing solar. The even better news is that the cost of solar systems has plummeted (and continues to do so), while retail rates continue to skyrocket, so much so that body corporates are reporting rates of return of 15-20% on their solar investments.
The recommended options for apartments are epitomised by the old adage “keep it simple”. They fall into two categories: a single solar system to power the common area, or multiple smaller systems powering individual units. Which of these is best suited to a particular apartment depends primarily on the building’s size (as a proxy for its energy demand).
For buildings with 1 square metre of sunny roof space per 2m² of floor space (typically blocks up three stories high), it is worth installing a solar system for each unit, as these will typically be well matched to unit’s consumption.
Taller buildings (with less sunshine per apartment) are better off installing a single system for the common area, particularly if this contains power-hungry elements such as elevators or heating and cooling systems.
But here’s the crux: no apartment can install solar without the political support of its strata committee. While this hurdle has historically tripped up many initiatives, increased public awareness has created a groundswell of support. Plus you may need fewer votes than you think.
To improve the chances of overcoming this barrier I have put together a solar-powered apartment pitch deck, available here.
While this article focuses on solar, it is important to remember that the first priority for any building should be to improve energy efficiency, by installing items such as LED lights, modern appliances, and insulation and draft proofing. For advice on these opportunities see the City of Sydney’s Smart Green Apartments website and the Smart Blocks website.
Lastly, adding batteries to an apartment solar system creates extra challenges, for instance fire-prevention planning. But it allows for far greater energy independence and resilience, and a chance to join the future of distributed energy currently being enjoyed by so many of Australia’s non-strata householders.
From driving innovation and economic growth, to creating jobs, to addressing climate change and ensuring a reliable and affordable energy system for the future, ARENA plays a critical role. Most perversely, by reducing Australia’s role in the booming global clean energy industry, closing ARENA would likely reduce Australia’s capacity to balance its budget in years to come.
ARENA has funded 60 completed projects and is managing a further 200. Many more are in the pipeline. It has also leveraged A$1.30 in private-sector R&D funding for every dollar of government funding – a fact that is often overlooked amid talk of budget savings.
Without ARENA’s grants and leveraged co-funding, very few of these projects would have happened. While its sister organisation, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, plays an important role in helping to finance established renewable projects and technologies, only ARENA can provide the research grant co-funding to develop these technologies in the first place.
ARENA was formed in 2012 as part of the Gillard government’s Clean Energy Future package. It drew together a range of clean energy programs and funds such as the Solar Flagships, the Australian Solar Institute and some, such as the Low Emissions Technology Demonstration Fund, which the Howard government established. ARENA was given the twin goals of:
Improving the competitiveness of renewable energy technologies
Increasing the supply of renewable energy in Australia.
Now, three years on, the Turnbull government has chosen to keep the CEFC but its plan to slash ARENA’s budget remains. The Labor opposition has yet to announce its position on the proposed cut. Meanwhile, clean energy researchers across Australia have written an open letter calling on all parties to support the agency.
ARENA’s innovation role
The process of energy technology innovation can be thought of as having a series of phases, which have different funding needs (see below).
The first phase is typically fundamental research and development. Two examples are the world-leading research programs at UNSW Australia and ANU, which have developed the world’s most efficient solar photovoltaic and solar thermal technologies. Both are ARENA-funded; neither could have been effectively funded by loans.
Technologies then need to be piloted in the real world – as in the case of the Carnegie Wave Energy project in Perth. This stage is often still too risky for most commercial lenders, so some public grant funding remains critical.
Next comes the large-scale demonstration phase – bringing technologies down the cost curve by developing viable business models and supply chains, with the aim of making them cost-competitive. Here, a mix of loan and grant funding is needed.
Australia’s large-scale solar industry is an example of a sector in this stage of development. In 2015, ARENA realised that despite having 1.5 million solar roofs and plenty of sunshine, Australia had a dearth of large-scale solar projects (only four operating and four in development). As such, it has committed A$100 million to help build more solar farms.
Finally, there are commercial renewable technologies that are already cost-competitive with other energy sources. Wind energy is the prime example of this, which is precisely why ARENA has not funded wind projects.
ARENA has a crucial role to play here. For example, it has funded the Institute of Sustainable Futures (ISF) at UTS to develop a set of Network Opportunity Maps. These show locations in the grid where demand management and decentralised generation (solar, storage etc) can help avoid costly grid upgrades.
ARENA has also funded ISF’s research into local energy trading (also known as peer-to-peer energy or virtual net metering). This is aimed at avoiding the predicted “energy death spiral”, by encouraging consumers and power companies to compromise in making the most of existing infrastructure, reducing consumers’ bills and supporting local power generation.
Meeting our climate targets
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, ARENA is helping to meet Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions target, which calls for a 26-28% cut relative to 2005 levels by 2030.
The electricity sector is Australia’s largest carbon emissions source. ARENA has a vital role in delivering cost-effective emissions reductions. There are two main mechanisms to decarbonise the sector: increasing energy productivity and efficiency, and switching from fossil fuels to renewables. As outlined above, ARENA is a key player in the latter process and is primed to play a leading role in the former.
It would be a tragic error to cut funding to an agency that is making such an important and successful contribution to fulfilling Australia’s obligations under the Paris climate agreement, as well as driving innovation and energy affordability. No other agency combines all of these facets.
Government support for innovation and investment in clean stationary energy is important, particularly at the early stages.
The need for this support is not going to go away. If ARENA and its research grant funding is abolished, a similar organisation will doubtless soon need to be re-established. In the meantime, millions of dollars in opportunities would have been wasted and irreplaceable industry and research expertise lost.
After years of policy instability around renewable energy, which has held back the domestic development of one of the world’s fastest-growing industries, do we really want to embrace even more uncertainty?
To paraphrase former Harvard University president Derek Bok, if you think research is expensive, try ignorance.