Australia taking solar power to the next level

Govt rolls out two large-scale solar plants, will spend $353m to build up to 10 more

A house with solar panels in Sydney. Almost 16 per cent of homes in Australia use solar power, the highest uptake in the world.
A house with solar panels in Sydney. Almost 16 per cent of homes in Australia use solar power, the highest uptake in the world. PHOTO: JONATHAN PEARLMAN

They are often seen on the rooftops of suburban homes in Australia - large glistening tiles that reflect an unusual feature of life in the sun-drenched nation.

Mostly put up in the past 10 years, these solar panels have made Australia the country with the world's largest household uptake of solar panels.

Almost 16 per cent of homes - or 1.49 million - now use solar power, compared with 7 per cent in Belgium and 4 per cent in Germany. The rate varies across Australia, with Queensland chalking up the highest, of almost 30 per cent.

But the country has far fewer large-scale solar energy plants and ranks only sixth in the world for total solar power capacity per person, behind Germany and Italy.

But this may be about to change.

Australia is starting to embrace large-scale solar plants, beginning with the opening of two new plants in outback New South Wales that form the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. The government is also providing about A$350 million (S$353 million) to support between four and 10 new large-scale plants in the coming years.

The Nyngan and Broken Hill plants, which will produce enough energy to power 50,000 homes a year, were officially opened on Jan 20.

Mr Andy Vesey, the head of AGL Energy, which operates the plants, said they marked "the birth of large-scale solar (power) in Australia". The plants have more than two million panels and about 10 times more output than any other solar facility in the country.

Minister for the Environment Greg Hunt said the plants will reduce Australia's carbon emissions by about 300,000 tonnes a year and help the country achieve its proposed reduction targets under last year's Paris agreement to combat climate change.

"When you see the photographs of an enormous area, comparable to some of the world's great solar projects, you realise that Australia has just the most potential of almost any country in the world," Mr Hunt told local ABC Radio in Broken Hill.

Australia is a hot, dry land mass with more solar power radiation per square metre than any other continent. But it is also one of the world's biggest carbon emitters per capita among major economies.

Analysts say the country is perfectly suited to solar power, but large-scale production may require government subsidies and incentives. The remarkably high uptake of residential panels has been due to generous subsidies.

An expert on sustainable energy, Dr Iain MacGill, from the University of New South Wales, said large-scale solar power was currently more expensive than wind energy and would struggle without government assistance.

"Further support for large-scale solar PV (photovoltaic power) in Australia to help get its costs down certainly seems to be targeting a major opportunity," he wrote on The Conversation website in September. Photovoltaics refers to the method of converting sunlight directly into electricity.

But Professor Vassilios Agelidis, an expert on efficient grid technologies, said solar power was becoming commercially viable and did not require government subsidies or incentives, though they could potentially assist, particularly in building plants in more remote areas.

"Solar has reached the stage now where it is commercially viable," he told The Sunday Times.

"Once it becomes large scale, the utility can manage it differently. You can trade it or help utilities during difficult or peak times."

Currently, solar power in Australia accounts for about 2 per cent of total electricity generation.

Experts say this figure is set to rise substantially as large-scale rollout continues and as more houses install new or bigger panels.

Sustainable energy expert Chris Dunstan of the University of Technology Sydney said the government needed to focus on removing regulatory barriers for utility companies. "We are a relatively affluent country and we have a lot of sun and we have a lot of rooftops," he told The Sunday Times. "Solar power has to be a big part of the future in Australia."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 31, 2016, with the headline Australia taking solar power to the next level. Subscribe