Australia Solar Institute opens: Where to now for the Australian solar industry?

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Thursday, January 15, saw the launch of the Australia Solar Institute in Newcastle, NSW. The $100 million AUD ($66 million USD) facility forms part of the federal government’s election commitment to fast-track solar research.

Australian universities have been at the forefront of renewable energy research, particularly solar, for many decades. Unfortunately, the domestic renewable energy industry has been denied the opportunity to benefit from the world-class success of research conducted in Australia, largely because of the historic lack of funding.

World-class researchers like Dr. Zhengrong Shi, CEO of Suntech, once studied and developed technologies in Australia at the School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering at the University of New South Wales. He was forced to look overseas for start-up capital when he left to pursue his theories in practice.

Other renowned research groups in Australia include the Australian National University and CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization), both of which will benefit from millions of dollars in funding from the government’s Energy Innovation Fund.

One of the most exciting breakthroughs in commercialising third-generation solar cells has come out of Queensland-headquartered Dyesol. The company is working with steel industry giant Corus to create and manufacture a viable DSC (dye-sensitised solar cell) product for building-integrated PV applications.

Martin Ferguson, Australian minister for resources and energy, said at the official opening last week: “In 2007, the Australian Labor Party went to the federal election committed to providing $150 million for an Energy Innovation Fund, which would include $100 million for solar research and development.

“This institute will provide vital support for researchers in the field of solar photovoltaics and concentrating solar thermal to help solar power become cost competitive with other energy sources. The government believes cost competitiveness is achievable and that solar power is a commercially viable energy option for the Australian community.”

The institute will fund R&D of solar thermal and PV technologies across Australia and will be housed in the CSIRO Energy Centre.

As part of the initial funding for the work of the Australia Solar Institute, the government is providing $15 million to establish three foundation projects:

· $5 million to support the development of a crystalline silicon pilot line at the University of New South Wales.
· $5 million to build a state-of-the-art solar thermal tower at the CSIRO in Newcastle.
· $5 million to assist in the establishment of a world-class process and characterisation solar research facility at the Australian National University in Canberra. 

Domestic market growth in Australia?

In 2008 the Australian government was criticised for introducing a means test on its $8000 rebate for 1Kw installations. After June 2009 the new solar credits scheme will be launched, which will offer a rebate of up to $7500 AUD and will not be means tested.

Each state has its own feed-in-tariff or equivalent system to help promote the domestic solar market. See here for details of state-run schemes.

In March, BP Solar is set to close its 50MW c-Si production facility in March, one of the few PV manufacturing plants in the country. Asian manufacturers Suntech and Sharp supply the majority of modules available in the Australian market.

The new influx of cash should help reinvigorate confidence in the Australian solar market, which has always showed promise without delivering results. It is ironic that a country that has generated such high-quality research and is literally sun-drenched has been unable to create a strong domestic market. Perhaps now is the time for Australia to seize the opportunities presented by the sun.

For more on the role of the Australia Solar Institute, see this fact sheet.

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