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Retaining the Lead in Solar Cell Technology

By Stuart Wenham

Australia must embrace change to realise its advantage in solar photovoltaics.

Australian research and education have figured prominently in the development and commercialisation of solar photovoltaic (PV) technology and the establishment and operation of many of the world’s largest PV manufacturing companies. This is due in part to Australia’s long-term international leadership in researching and developing some of the highest-efficiency solar cell technologies in the world, offering PV engineering education and training opportunities, and pioneering PV applications for remote telecommunications and residential use.

Australia, with its abundance of sunshine, is particularly well-placed to capitalise on the benefits of using PV. The modularity of PV makes it well-suited to electricity provision for Australia’s geographically distributed populations from remote locations to urban centres.

Australia is well-positioned to lead and benefit from enhanced uptake of PV technologies. It has decades of knowledge and experience in the development of new PV and balance-of-system technologies, research, education and deployment. There is little doubt that PV has massive potential for growth here.

To date, grid-connected PV uptake in Australia has focused on the relatively small-scale residential rooftop market. But there is a significant, cost-effective and largely untapped market in medium- and large-scale PV systems to supply commercial premises, industry, government facilities and regional towns.

Large-scale, central-generation PV power stations are also starting to be built.

New PV technology under development in Australia includes improved-efficiency and/or reduced-cost solar cells; PV that is integrated into buildings; improved and innovative methods of mounting PV modules; and PV-powered mobile electronics. These will create markets for new PV technologies that build on the power module market and continue to impact established energy demand requirements.

Australia has a key role to play in the deployment of off-grid and mini-grid PV systems in the Asia-Pacific region, where high dependence on oil-based electricity systems are major economic and environmental issues. Australian expertise in off-grid and mini-grid power supplies is of increasing importance as PV-based power systems become increasingly viable as replacements for diesel generators across the region.

The challenge for Australia is being able to compete on the world stage, where many countries have seen the benefits that PV provides and have large and targeted support programs.

PV should be recognised as a strategic technology sector for Australia, if our comparative advantages in PV are to be maintained. Such an approach would align well with the recently released National Science and Research Priorities.

PV is the main technology driving change in the electricity market – distributed energy systems (on-site generation), demand management, energy efficiency, storage and intelligent networks, where PV inverters can become an essential component of the future.

Increased energy storage availability would facilitate higher uptake of PV and overcome issues of intermittency and grid management that may otherwise arise.

The deployment of millions of roof-mounted PV systems has already caused a large shift in demand profiles and revenue streams for the electricity distribution networks. More than 1.4 million roof-mounted PV systems have been deployed in Australia. As a result, business models are changing; utilities are significantly increasing levels of customer interaction; and two-way flows of energy and communication in electricity grids will become the norm over time. These changes will require new types of infrastructure and new regulatory frameworks.

The main challenge for Australia to realise its comparative global advantage for PV application is the removal of economic, political and regulatory barriers that maintain current subsidies and monopolies and impede PV deployment advances.

There is an urgent need for market regulatory reform to create a less constrained market environment that is technology-agnostic and allows for transformative change in distributed energy markets.

This will change how energy is provided and consumed and will also provide appropriate value to renewables, including large-scale PV and wind feeding into the transmission system.

The key steps forward for Australia are to incentivise PV technology R&D, establish competitive energy markets, and provide a sustainable energy framework to facilitate increased deployment of PV.

Scientia Professor Stuart Wenham FTSE is the Director of the ARC Photovoltaics Centre of Excellence at UNSW, and the winner of a 2008 Clunies Ross Award.