Australia is very conducive to solar power. 80% of the country averages less than three inches of rain per year and more than half enjoys 8-10 hours of sunshine each summer day. Yet despite this dry sunny climate, Australia’s potential for solar power production is still underutilized.
With a population of just under 20 million people, Australia harvests roughly 4-5% of its power from solar energy. This percentage could be significantly higher but, as had long been the case in the United States, the national government failed to keep up with most Australian states. Thus solar power systems have remained much too expensive for Australian homeowners, business, and schools.
But all that may be changing. For one, the Australian government has adopted Mandatory Renewable Energy Targets (MRET) for the country, requiring 20% of Australia’s energy to come from renewable sources by 2020. This should prove a big boost for solar in Australia, although more government funding may be necessary as well.
Recently, signs of partnership between industry and government have been popping up, as exemplified by the 154 MW photovoltaic plant in Victoria. The government is paying roughly one third of the $420 million project.
Furthermore, and the second reason why times are changing for solar power in Australia, the Victoria and other plants are using Australian born technology. The plants will use trough mirrors to concentrate sunlight 500 times onto high performance solar panels. The concentrating system increases efficiency, lowers costs, and minimizes the effect of shade on the system. The Victoria Plant will have about 20,000 mirrors in total, producing enough power for 45,000 homes.
Australia is not just for PV either. There is enormous potential for solar thermal systems as well, and many new homes come equipped with a solar hot water system. Still solar water heaters account for only 5% of the Australian market, even though water heating is number one in terms home energy use; accounting for 28% of costs. Both the Australian government and its states offer rebates for solar hot water systems, depending on the size and expected performance of the system.
The table is set for solar energy in Australia; the climate is ideal, goals have been set, and powerful innovation is spawning. The solar industry and homeowners await only more lucrative incentives to bring costs down. There is much talk of feed-in tariffs throughout Australia and some states have already introduced them. Unfortunately, last year the government actually put limits on its national rebate program, incurring anger and layoffs in the solar industry.
Most of Australia, like the desert southwest here in the U.S., is built to utilize solar energy. A national MRET will help take advantage of the nation’s most abundant resource. Still, it would seem that the fate of solar power in Australia depends largely on the government’s willingness and ability to properly incentivize the solar industry.