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.
Many of us are familiar with developments of big solar farms in rural and regional areas. These are often welcomed as a positive sign of our transition towards a low-carbon economy. But do large-scale solar installations have a place in our cities?
The proposal is facing some community opposition, however. Residents are reportedly alarmed by the potential public health consequences of building on a rubbish dump, which risks releasing toxic contaminants such as asbestos into the environment. Other concerns include glare from the solar panels, or excessive noise.
Similar complaints about solar panels in cities are being seen all over the world, with opponents generally of the view “they do not belong in residential areas”. So what are the planning issues associated with large-scale solar installations in cities? And should we be concerned about possible negative impacts?
What is large-scale solar?
According to the Australian Clean Energy Regulator, large-scale solar refers to “a device with a kilowatt (kW) rating of more than 100 kilowatts”. A kilowatt is a measure of power – the rate of energy delivery at a given moment – whereas a kilowatt-hour (kWh) is a measure of the total energy produced (so a 100kW device operating for one hour would produce 100kWh of electricity).
Device here refers to not only the photovoltaic (PV) panels – the actual panels used in solar energy – but also to the infrastructure “behind the electricity meter”. So interconnected panels may still constitute a single device.
By this definition, there may already be large-scale solar installations in Australian cities. In Sydney for example, the recently opened system on top of the Alexandra Canal Transport Depot is by all accounts a large-scale solar system. It combines around 1,600 solar panels with enough battery storage for 500kWh of electricity.
But this is not Sydney’s largest solar installation. That honour is presently held by the Sydney Markets in Flemington, among Australia’s largest rooftop solar installations, which generates around 3 megawatts (that’s 3,000kW). To date, there have been no publicly disclosed complaints received about these facilities.
Large-scale solar (sometimes called “big solar”) can also refer to solar arrays that use mirrors to concentrate sunlight onto solar PV panels. This is different to concentrated thermal solar, which uses mirrors to focus sunlight onto the top of a tower to heat salt, oil or other materials that can then be used to generate steam to power turbines for electricity generation.
What’s the problem with solar in cities?
Internationally, there is increasing recognition cities could be ideal locations for large-scale solar installations due to the amounts of unused land. This includes land alongside freeways and main roads, flood-prone land, and rooftops on factories, warehouses and residences. And locating big solar in cities can also reduce the energy losses that occur with transmitting electricity over long distances.
Australia’s combined rooftop solar installations already supply the equivalent of enough power for all the homes in Sydney. And even former landfill sites – which have few uses other than parkland and are often too contaminated to sustain other land uses such as residential development – can be a good use of space for solar farms. But such sites would need to be carefully managed so contaminants are not released during construction.
Large-scale solar installations can present some challenges for urban planning. For instance, mirrors can cause problems with glare, or even damage if they were misaligned (problems thus far have been in solar thermal plants). Maintenance vehicles may increase traffic in neighbourhoods. Installing solar panels could cause temporary problems with noise and lighting. And views could potentially be disrupted if adjoining residents overlook a large-scale solar installation.
But not all of these impacts would be long-term, and they can all potentially be managed through planning approval, permitting processes and development conditions. Installing screens or trees can improve views, for instance. Glare is a potential problem but again can be managed via screening (at the site or on overlooking buildings) or protective films on the panels.
The issue with the proposed solar farm in Fremantle is the fact it’s planned atop a former landfill site, known to contain harmful substances including asbestos, hydrocarbons and heavy metals. Unless carefully managed, construction of the solar farm could disturb these materials and potentially expose nearby residents to health impacts.
Most state environmental protection agencies recognise risks if the use of potentially contaminated land is to be changed, and have developed stringent guidelines for landfill management.
The City of Fremantle has approved the proposed development, subject to the preparation of a site management plan among other conditions. Depending on site management, and the characteristics of surrounding neighbourhoods, poorly managed big solar on landfill sites could become an environmental justice issue. From this perspective, residents’ concerns are understandable, and the City of Fremantle will need to ensure it carefully monitors construction.
It is reasonable to expect that cities will increasingly host large-scale solar installations. With careful site selection and management, the multiple benefits of clean energy can accrue to urban residents. Otherwise leftover or marginal land can derive an economic return.
The Turnbull government is facing fresh trouble over its energy policy ahead of a crucial meeting next week, with Victoria’s Energy Minister Lily D’Ambrosio warning that the state won’t be rushed into signing onto the National Energy Guarantee (NEG).
In a speech to be delivered on Tuesday, D’Ambrosio will play on dissent in the Coalition, saying: “Malcolm Turnbull is trying to get us to sign up to something that hasn’t gone to his own party room – a place full of climate sceptics”.
“Every time we get close to a national energy policy, the Coalition party room shoots it down,” she will tell a clean energy summit in Sydney. An extract from her speech was issued ahead of its delivery.
“How can we have any confidence in what they’re asking from us if it hasn’t been through his party room first?
“We won’t rush into supporting a policy that we’re not certain is in the best interests of Victorians, just to appease to coal ideologues in Canberra.
“We won’t support a scheme that leaves the states in the dark and leaves us all hostage to the extremists in Turnbull’s party room,” D’Ambrosio will say.
Victoria’s shot across the bows on energy comes as Turnbull faces difficult fallout from the government’s disappointing byelection performance on Saturday, especially in the Queensland seat of Longman, where the Liberal National Party’s primary vote plunged by 9 points to just under 30%.
This is fuelling a push from some within the Coalition for the government to abandon its policy for tax cuts for big business if, as expected, a fresh attempt to get the legislation through the Senate fails. Labor successfully exploited the company tax issue in the byelections.
Turnbull’s weakened authority will also embolden party room critics of the energy policy, led by Tony Abbott – although these are in a minority. Abbott on Monday repeated his call for Australia to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement and to cut immigration.
The Guardian reported on Monday that Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg had flagged a two-stage process, as he tries to bed down a deal on the NEG. Under his timetable the NEG mechanism would be agreed on August 10 at the meeting of the Council of Australian Governments energy council. On August 14 the states and territories would get the Commonwealth legislation on the emissions reduction part of the scheme and discuss it in a phone hook up.
The key to this timetable is that it would allow Frydenberg to put the Commonwealth legislation to the Coalition party room on August 14 ahead of it being presented to states and territories. He has previously said the legislation would go to the party room.
Abbott has unsuccessfully pressed for much more party room input before any Commonwealth-state deal is done.
It is not clear whether Victoria will actually try to stall a deal next week, or is just playing politics ahead of the meeting.
D’Ambrosio will say Victoria has “acted in good faith” on the development of the proposed NEG “but it’s no secret that like many other states, we have major concerns about it.”
“We have made it very clear from the beginning – we won’t let any policy get in the way of Victoria achieving our legislated renewable energy targets. Our targets are the only real guarantee to bring down power prices”. Victoria would continue to discuss its concerns ahead of next week’s meeting.
Meanwhile, amid the uncertainty about the company tax cuts’ future, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann strongly defended them. Cormann, who has been the government’s negotiator with the crossbench, is seen as its most committed advocate of the tax plan.
“We are working with the crossbench as we speak to secure the necessary support,” he told the ABC.
Pressed on whether the government would take the policy to the election if it could not win the Senate vote, Cormann said: “That is our position”.
“The bigger businesses around Australia in many ways are most exposed to the pressures of global competition and they employ many millions of Australians directly. Weaker bigger businesses in Australia means less business for smaller and medium-sized businesses.
“It also means lower job security for the people that big business employ directly and lower job security for the many employees in the many small and medium-sized businesses who supply products and services to those bigger businesses,” Cormann said.
Federal Liberal MP Luke Howarth, from Queensland, told Sky that if the measure could not be passed it should be dropped.
Abbott, interviewed on 2GB, said he accepted the economic case for the company tax cuts but there were no votes in them.
Central to the public debate about the National Energy Guarantee (NEG) has been the numerical forecasts of its effects – in particular how much it will reduce power prices. In a democracy whose households pay some of the world’s highest electricity bills, it is obvious why this measure should shape the narrative on energy policy.
But Plato tells us that good decisions are based on knowledge, not numbers. What’s more, electricity markets are incredibly complex, and therefore not amenable to straightforward predictions.
The Energy Security Board has put numbers at the centre of its NEG proposal, but the basis of these numbers is not clear. With 22 colleagues at 10 other Australian universities, we are calling for state and territory ministers to ensure that the ESB’s modelling is available for proper scrutiny. I explain here why I support this request.
On October 17, 2017, the newly created ESB claimed in a letter to federal energy minister Josh Frydenberg that annual household bills would ultimately be A$100-115 lower under the NEG as a result of the NEG being introduced.
The ESB said this calculation was based on its estimate that wholesale electricity prices under the NEG would be 20-25% lower than under business as usual, and 8-10% lower than under the Clean Energy Target proposed by the Finkel Review.
No analysis or modelling was provided to justify these claims. But five weeks later the ESB had altered its forecast, releasing a report claiming that wholesale electricity prices would typically be 35% lower with the NEG than they would be without it. Underlying this claim was the assumption that only 597 megawatts of renewable generation would be developed between 2020 and 2030 if the NEG was not implemented.
This stands in stark contrast to the verdicts of other analysts. Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicted that 24,000MW of renewable generation (40 times more than the ESB’s figure) would be built between 2020 and 2030 without the NEG. Bloomberg also predicted less new renewable capacity with the NEG than without it.
Final design on the table
The ESB last week released its final design for the NEG to policymakers, but not the public. It now claims that the policy will reduce household electricity bills by A$150 a year relative to business as usual. It also now says that without the NEG around 8,000MW of new renewable generation will be installed (13 times more investment than it predicted eight months ago).
But the ESB says all of this will be installed behind the meter on the roofs of Australia’s homes and businesses and it persists with the assumption that no new large-scale renewable capacity will be built without the NEG.
But once again this seems to contrast vividly with what others are saying and doing. Several major companies have signed contracts for large-scale renewables, including Telstra, Carlton & United Breweries, Orora, and BlueScope Steel. The ESB’s assumption that all large-scale renewables development will grind to a halt without the NEG is even less plausible now than it was in November 2017.
Others have previouslynoted that the ESB’s estimate of renewable investment from 2020 to 2030 bears no relation to the estimates from the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) of around 18,000 MW of additional renewable generation between 2020 and 2030, despite the ESB’s claims to the contrary.
However, the ESB’s final design has now helpfully clarified what several other analysts have alreadypointed out: that meeting the government’s target of reducing the electricity sector’s greenhouse emissions by 26% will require emissions reductions of just 2% between 2020 and 2030 beyond what is already set to be achieved. That is a meagre 0.2% cut per year that the NEG policy will be required to deliver.
I estimate that this will in fact be achieved several times over just with the 8,000MW of new rooftop solar capacity that the ESB predicts will happen even if the NEG is not implemented. To be clear, on the ESB’s numbers, Australia’s electricity sector greenhouse gas emissions will be lower than the government requires them to be, even if the NEG is not implemented. So how then can it be plausible to predict that the NEG will stimulate additional investment in renewable capacity beyond what would happen anyway?
You can’t have your cake and eat it. If a policy is intended to make no difference to what would happen anyway, how can it be expected to drive down household bills by A$150?
And without putting its modelling into the public domain where it can be subjected to wider expert scrutiny, how will we know whether the ESB’s assumptions actually hold water?
The NEG will be a massive administrative change to Australia’s energy market, and a potentially substantive change if future governments set much higher emissions reduction targets. State and territory energy ministers are being asked to accept the ESB’s promise that household electricity bills will decline by 30-40% in the next few years, and that the NEG will account for a fair part of this. Those ministers should scrutinise this rosy projection carefully before accepting it. After all, the public will be looking to them, and not the federal government, to make good on these price pledges.
The Integrated System Plan is a comprehensive, systems-engineering assessment. Its goal is to identify the lowest-cost combination of investments and decisions over the next 20 years, to support Australia’s energy transition to a low-emissions future.
The assessment uses an economic model of the system that includes maintaining reliability, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, closing existing plants when they reach the end of their technical life, and adopting lowest-cost replacement technologies.
AEMO considers two emissions reduction scenarios: the first is based on Australia’s current target under the Paris Agreement (a 26-28% reduction below 2005 level by 2030). The second adopts a target closer to that recommended by the Climate Change Authority and assessed by CSIRO as a fast change scenario (a 52% reduction by 2030).
In both scenarios existing coal-fired power stations close, either on their planned closure date (for those where such a date has been announced), or once they are 50 years old. Around 14 gigawatts (GW) of a total 23GW of coal-fired generation capacity will retire by 2040. As these plants close, a mixture of gas-fired generation, renewable energy, and storage (particularly pumped hydro) is projected to be the lowest-cost way to replace them.
The ISP is not technology-prescriptive, but it doesn’t include new coal-fired generators.
It is hardly surprising that the ISP supports maintaining the existing coal-fired generation facilities up to the end of their technical lives, to minimise costs. Coal-fired power stations represent big up-front capital investments that then produce relatively cheap electricity. But, like all such plants, they become increasingly expensive to operate and unreliable as they age. Keeping them operating beyond their technical life will become more expensive than replacing them with new generation. The ISP is closely aligned with the reliability requirements of the Finkel Blueprint and the National Guarantee to ensure closure is carefully planned.
Unfortunately for new coal investment, what will be more valuable in the future is much greater flexibility to deal with changes in supply and demand. Coal-fired power stations, existing or new, make their best contribution when they operate at very high levels – that is, 80-90% of the time. Upgrading transmission lines between states, can raise the occupancy level and lower the cost of existing power stations.
The NEM needs to transform to support widely distributed renewable generation. Historically, electricity has been generated by centralised, large power stations. New generation is likely to involve a mix of small and large renewable assets over much larger areas. This mix of generation technologies will require investment in the transmission network.
The central recommendation of the ISP is a three-stage development of the transmission network to support the new world of distributed energy and storage. The immediate stage is focused on transmission upgrades to address bottlenecks and connect regional renewable energy plants.
The second phase (2020-30) continues this approach and extends to connecting strategic storage initiatives – Snowy Hydro 2.0 and the Tasmanian Battery of the Nation.
The third stage (2030-40) further augments interstate transmission and included intrastate connections for renewable energy zones (REZ) located in regional Australia.
The ISP provides a hard-nosed engineering and cost assessment of what our energy system needs. It applies neither an accelerator nor a brake to the closure of existing coal-fired power stations. We need more of this approach and less ideology if we really want to see a lowest-cost, reliable and low-emissions future for Australia.
As the federal government aims to ink a deal with the states on the National Energy Guarantee in August, it appears still to be negotiating within its own ranks. Federal energy minister Josh Frydenberg has reportedly told his partyroom colleagues that he would welcome a new coal-fired power plant, while his former colleague (and now Queensland Resources Council chief executive) Ian Macfarlane urged the government to consider offering industry incentives for so-called “clean coal”.
Solar PV and wind are now cheaper than new-build coal power plants, even without carbon capture and storage. Unsubsidised contracts for wind projects in Australia have recently been signed for less than A$55 per MWh, and PV electricity is being produced from very large-scale plants at A$30-50 per MWh around the world.
As the graph below shows, medium to large (at least 100 kilowatts) renewable energy projects have been growing strongly in Australia since 2017. Before that, there was a slowdown due to the policy uncertainty around the Renewable Energy Target, but wind and large scale solar are now being installed at record rates and are expected to grow further.
As the graph also shows, this has been accompanied by a rapid increase in employment in the renewables sector, with roughly 4,000 people employed constructing and operating wind and solar farms in 2016-17. In contrast, employment in biomass (largely sugar cane bagasse and ethanol) and hydro generation have been relatively static.
Although employment figures are higher during project construction than operation, high employment numbers will continue as long as the growth of renewable projects continues. As the chart below shows, a total of 6,400MW of new wind and solar projects are set to be completed by 2020.
The Queensland question
Australia’s newest coal-fired power plant was opened at Kogan Creek, Queensland in 2007. Many of the political voices calling for new coal have suggested that this investment should be made in Queensland. But what’s the real picture of energy development in that state?
There has been no new coal for more than a decade, but developers are queuing up to build renewable energy projects. Powerlink, which owns and maintains Queensland’s electricity network, reported in May that it has received 150 applications and enquiries to connect to the grid, totalling 30,000MW of prospective new generation – almost all of it for renewables. Its statement added:
A total of more than A$4.2 billion worth of projects are currently either under construction or financially committed, offering a combined employment injection of more than 3,500 construction jobs across regional Queensland and more than 2,000MW of power.
As the map below shows, 80% of these projects are in areas outside South East Queensland, meaning that the growth in renewable energy is set to offer a significant boost to regional employment.
Tropical North Queensland, in particular, has plenty of sunshine and relatively little seasonal variation in its climate. While not as windy as South Australia, it has the advantage that it is generally windier at night than during the day, meaning that wind and solar energy would complement one another well.
Renewable energy projects that incorporate both solar and wind in the same precinct operate for a greater fraction of the time, thus reducing the relative transmission costs. This is improved still further by adding storage in the form of pumped hydro or batteries – as at the new renewables projects at Kidston and Kennedy.
Remember also that Queensland is linked to the other eastern states via the National Electricity Market (NEM). It makes sense to build wind farms across a range of climate zones from far north Queensland to South Australia because – to put it simply – the wider the coverage, the more likely it is that it will be windy somewhere on the grid at any given time.
This principle is reflected in our work on 100% renewable electricity for Australia. We used five years of climate data to determine the optimal location for wind and solar plants, so as to reliably meet the NEM’s total electricity demand. We found that the most cost-effective solution required building about 10 gigawatts (GW) of new wind and PV in far north Queensland, connected to the south with a high-voltage cable.
Jobs and growth
This kind of investment in northern Queensland has the potential to create thousands of jobs in the coming decades. An SKM report commissioned by the Clean Energy Council estimated that each 100MW of new renewable energy would create 96 direct local jobs, 285 state jobs, and 475 national jobs during the construction phase. During operation those figures would be 9 local jobs, 14 state jobs and 32 national jobs per 100MW of generation.
Spreading 10GW of construction over 20 years at 500MW per year would therefore deliver 480 ongoing local construction jobs and 900 ongoing local operation jobs once all are built, and total national direct employment of 2,400 and 3,200 in construction and operations, respectively.
But the job opportunities would not stop there. New grid infrastructure will also be needed, for transmission line upgrades and investments in storage such as batteries or pumped hydro. The new electricity infrastructure could also tempt energy-hungry industries to head north in search of cheaper operating costs.
One political party with a strong regional focus, Katter’s Australia Party, understands this. Bob Katter’s seat of Kennedy contains two large renewable energy projects. In late 2017, he and the federal shadow infrastructure minister Anthony Albanese took a tour of renewables projects across far north Queensland’s “triangle of power”.
Katter, never one to hold back, asked “how could any government conceive of the stupidity like another baseload coal-fired power station in North Queensland?” Judging by the numbers, it’s a very good question.
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.