Australia and US Enter Solar Power Agreement

On November 8, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced a $50-million collaboration to augment work, that will optimize solar energy in more cost effective ways.

The two nations expect to see a lowering of consumer prices for solar power technologies by as much as two to four times their current rate. This will also level the cost playing field between solar energy and fossil-fuel power, probably within five years.

Addressing a press conference at Pixel House, Gillard announced that the government-managed Australian Solar Institute will supervise the $50 million Australian contribution allocated in the 2010 federal budget. Clinton also announced a $500,000 grant from the U.S. State Department to Australia’s Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute, another state-operated institution, to fund the initiative.

The Solar Institute plans to look into dual-junction solar photovoltaic (PV) devices (for multiple-layer thin-film applications), hot-carrier solar cells (utilizing a wider range of high-energy electrons) and high-temperature receivers for concentrating solar power (CSP) applications.

These joint efforts will comprise laboratory exchange programs, sharing of data on specific development projects and joint funding to help evolve new solar technologies.

Clinton pointed out, that major consumption of solar cells and solar panels and the a global economic recession have both contribute to the reduce price of solar PV modules in the last three years. But the technology will only become popular and more affordable when prices fall about 75 percent and uptake reaches the same ratio as cell phones.

“We need to spark a global cleantech industry. And that will help our economies grow by creating tens of thousands of new jobs, give us viable alternatives to fossil fuels, and reduce our dependence on foreign sources of energy,” Clinton added.

Australia has been successful in establishing $5.1 billion, to make a renewable energy mandate of at least 20 percent from renewable energy sources by 2020. This will generate close to $19 billion in related investments, according to Gillard, who met with Clinton during Clinton’s last stop on her Asia-Pacific tour.

Welcoming this collaborative effort, ASI executive director Mark Twidell outlined some of the specific technologies that might enable the desired cost reductions. Like the Hot-carrier solar cells - a concept that deploys nanostructured materials to improve cell conversion efficiency. This work was pioneered at Australia’s Special Research Centre for Third Generation Photovoltaics.

Since the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has a strong capability in materials and device collaboration, this is viewed as another likely area of collaboration. Cell measurement and characterization are key areas too. International standardization is yet to be established in this field. “The development of international codes and standards in this regard is essential,” said the ASI, “especially when one considers the fact those small differences in efficiency, when multiplied over megawatt-scale arrays, can equate to very significant financial ramifications.”

“Teaming the experts at Australian institutions with those at NREL would help to develop the types of collaborations needed to ensure the international consensus which will be necessary in relation to cell efficiency measurements.”ASI further added.

A lot of factors beliefs are involved in this Solar powered versus conventional power based methods. The governing factor being the lesser costs involved in conventional coal- powered systems which in turn is based on carbon pricing.

The office of Resources Minister Martin Ferguson was unable to say what carbon price assumptions lay behind the big US-Australian solar announcement or on what basis the prediction of competitiveness within five years was made. Whatever the assumed carbon price is in the calculation, the obvious problem is that neither US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton nor Prime Minister Julia Gillard has a carbon price in place yet.

Although not directly part of the US-Australia discussion on solar technologies, there was an underlying thought to these collaborations. That of finding alternatives to rare-earth elements involved in renewable energy generation. In interviews with the Australian media, Clinton did mention concerns over China’s near-monopoly,in supplying rare-earths, and further said that both the US and Australia have significant rare-earth deposits that ought to aid in addressing that problem.

One can look at big government subsidies or making the generators pay the price gap and then pass it on to consumers to bridge the gap between the price of coal and solar, or coal and nuclear, or coal and any other power source. Investing in Solar power as a renewable energy source remains a controversial proposition for many people. There is uncertainty about whether the amounts of baseload power generated from fossil fuels, especially coal, would be replicated by solar power.

Research backed by strong funding and the right kind of initiative, should put such beliefs to rest.

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