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South Australia Doubles Down on Solar Energy

By Ian Lowe

A South Australian election promise to install solar panels and batteries in 50,000 homes has placed the Prime Minister in an awkward position.

The calling of a state election in South Australia put electricity prices in the spotlight. The 100 MW Tesla battery has proved a great success, not just evening out power supply for South Australia but helping out Victoria when a Latrobe Valley brown-coal generator shut down on a hot afternoon.

The Weatherill government doubled down on its commitment to renewables and storage with a plan to install solar panels and batteries free in 50,000 homes. The first 1100 systems will be provided to public housing, which will also get the next 24,000 before the scheme is offered to owner-occupiers.

The deal with Tesla and solar panel suppliers will be financed by the sale of surplus electricity to the grid. The Premier says the result will be a 250 MW virtual power station, with participants expected to see a 30% reduction in their power bills. The plan has been lauded by the Smart Energy Council’s chief executive John Grimes as a “game-changer” providing “greater security for the energy network” while reducing power bills.

The plan created a political difficulty for the Liberal Opposition in South Australia. On the one hand, they had Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull deriding the renewable energy strategy as “reckless experiments”. At the same time, they couldn’t be seen opposing a scheme to lower prices, so a newspaper report said they had a similar plan to put solar panels and batteries in 40,000 homes.

I attended a forum on the future of Australian energy during the election campaign. It brought together local and national experts from a range of bodies: the Australian Energy Market Operator, the Grattan Institute, Infrastructure Victoria, Frontier Economics, the Capital Markets Cooperative Research Centre and several others. While there were diverse views about the best way forward and the appropriate level of regulation, none of the experts disagreed with the observation that renewables are now the most cost-effective way to provide new power, as well as the only responsible way to meet our international obligations.

To underline this point, it was announced that the Adelaide fruit and vegetable market will spend $10.5 million to establish a solar micro-grid. The system will consist of 2.5 MW of solar panels, a 4.2 MW lithium-ion battery and a 2.5 MW back-up generator, all controlled by a smart operating system. The project has been enabled by a $2.5 million State government grant. The produce market joins the Adelaide Showground and the Adelaide airport in having megawatt-scale solar installations.

It was great to see the recognition of science in the Australia Day celebration of high achievers. I hope it shows that things are changing at last at the national level. I had a column published nearly 30 years ago in our national newspaper, lamenting the fact that high-achieving scientists don’t get the sort of public recognition regularly given to those who succeed in obscure minority sports. Last year stem cell scientist Prof Alan Mackay-Sim was Australian of the Year. He did a great job promoting science during his year in the role.

The 2018 announcements saw quantum physicist Prof Michele Simmons as his anointed successor. As well, biological scientist Prof Graham Farquhar was Senior Australian of the Year, while Sydney maths teacher Eddie Woo was the Local Hero for 2018. So three of the four Australia Day awards recognised intellectual achievement in maths and science, with one – Young Australian of the Year –– going to an outstanding female footballer.

I was particularly delighted by the award to Simmons. When I was a young scientist, physics was an overwhelmingly male domain. All of the students in my Honours year were men, and at my university there was only one woman doing post-graduate research in physics. It was clear that the gender bias was due to social assumptions.

The one field of physics in which women were prominent internationally was X-ray crystallography, refuting the claim that women were incapable of thinking in three dimensions. One of its leading researchers told me that the pioneers of the field, the Braggs, encouraged women at a time when most male physicists did not.

I hope Simmons’ recognition will empower capable young women to consider careers in the physical sciences.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.