A Brief History of Solar Panels in Australia.
Since French physicist Alexandre-Edmund Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect in 1839, his research has become the basis of many solar panels in Australia as well as the rest of the world. Much of the technology that powers modern solar panels is based on Alexandre-Edmund Becquerrel’s work with photovoltaics. However, it would not be an understatement to say that in the modern era, Australia is a proud supporter of the solar industry, and by far one of the most successful adopters of solar energy. This is evident from the plethora of readily available solar panels in Sydney, Melbourne, Hallam and all other major cities in Australia. For over sixty years, Australia has been a leader in solar technology and its related industries. Good old Australian ingenuity has resulted in solar panels being used in almost every facet of modern Australian life. Be it a solar-powered hot water system or a payphone using solar space technology, there are many accomplishments in the field of solar power that Australia can be proud of. It is a fact that no technology is ever truly successful until it is incorporated into everyday life. Judging by the widespread use of solar panels in Australia, it is a fair assumption that the solar industry is decidedly successful and well worth the price of admission. Not only is this a major boon to the global push towards renewable and sustainable energy, but it is also a clear and undeniable demonstration that solar power is indeed a viable solution to modern problems stemming from fossil-fuel-based energy, or at least it is in sunny Australia!
In order to understand the success of solar panels and photovoltaics in Australia, it is essential to first see where the journey began and the role Australia has played in turning this erstwhile unknown and largely neglected technology into a viable energy source for millions of people across the globe.
Baby Steps: The First Solar Panels in Australia
It began in 1839 with Alexandre-Edmund Becquerel and his work in photovoltaics. The next big step came in 1837, when Willoughby Smith, an English electrical Engineer, discovered selenium, the first photoconductive solid. This enabled solar energy to be harvested without any moving parts for the first time in history. Then in 1883, ingenuity made its way to the New World, and an American electrical engineer named Charles Fritts made the world’s first working solar cell. And so, with these baby steps, began a long and prosperous journey towards solar energy.
Australia Takes the Lead in Solar Research
Since the 1950s, Australia picked up from where the world dropped the ball. The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation is an Australian Government agency responsible for scientific research. It led the world in solar research since the 50s. Extensive research conducted by the CSIRO resulted in the use of solar power to heat water, creating the world’s first solar-powered water heating system. This invention proved vital during the 1973 Oil Crisis. In 1973 the Organisation of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries declared an embargo on nations that supported Israel in the Yom Kippur War. This caused the prices of fossil fuels to skyrocket, making energy all but unaffordable in many parts of the world. During the embargo, solar-powered water heaters were widely adopted in Australia to replace conventional heating systems. By the time the embargo was lifted, solar power had become a household name in Australia. The ramifications of being dependent on other nations for vital necessities were simply too great and the independence offered by solar energy too alluring to abandon. From this point, it was only upwards and onwards.
In 1978, solar panels in Australia were incorporated into the telecommunications sector. Solar PV panels were adapted from spacecraft for remote communications by Telecom Australia. Telecom towers require an uninterrupted supply of power to be able to function. It is also essential for towers to be able to operate standalone, without becoming a burden on the national grid. In this regard, solar energy is key. Telecom towers now support solar panels in Melbourne, Sydney, Hallam and many other parts of Australia, making Australian telecommunications some of the more robust systems in the world.
1989: Reliable Solar Power Becomes a Reality
In 2018, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of New South Wales, Professor Ian Jacobs declared that by 2020, UNSW would achieve net zero emissions from energy use. This vision was realised by November 2020 and marks UNSW’s continued devotion to renewable energy. In the past, the University has been at the forefront of solar technology. One of the modern world’s most renowned panels, the PERC, was first invented by a team of researchers in UNSW’s School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy (SPREE) led by Professor Martin Green. In 1983, Professor Green pioneered the world’s first 19% efficient solar panel and in 1985, he had achieved 20% efficiency for his design. Today, his concepts are incorporated into the popular panels known as PERC, or Passivated Emitter and Rear Cell. Since was conceived in the 80s and introduced to the mainstream market in 2012, PERC has taken the solar world by storm. Currently, around fifty per cent of all produced solar cells are PERC. The reason behind this thriving popularity is the PERC’s efficiency. These panels are more efficient than their predecessors. While the few percentage points that PERC offers may seem minuscule in the beginning, in the long run, they tend to add up, particularly for large-scale operations. PERC cells have a dielectric passivation layer at the rear of the cell that contributes to this increase in its efficiency. This layer helps make the flow of electrons more consistent, thereby producing additional current by reducing electron recombination. Electron recombination is when the free flow of electrons through the cell is blocked, resulting in reduced efficiency. Furthermore, PERC cells make use of the passivation layer to reflect unabsorbed light into the cell for re-absorption in an attempt to produce more energy. The passivation layer also prevents certain wavelengths of light from being absorbed into the back of the cell. In conventional panels, these wavelengths would be absorbed in the back panel of the cell, causing its temperature to increase. This results in decreased efficiency. The passivation layer reflects these wavelengths out of the cell and maintains the internal temperature.
A downside of the PERC is that it does suffer from increased LID (Light Induced Degradation), but this by no means outshines the many positives that the type brings to the table. This is evident from its growing popularity.
While the differences between a PERC cell and a standard cell are not enormous, they are significant enough to propel the PERC and make it one of the more sought-after types in the modern market. The PERC, up until now, was the most efficient solar panel in Australia and is a testament to advances made by Australia in the world of photovoltaics.
Australia’s Growing Solar Capacity
By 2005, Australia was, and still is, a global leader in solar energy production. While it remains one of the largest solar producers in the world, in 2005, the nation was the 4th largest solar energy contributor. Part of this was thanks to AGL’s 1250 cell solar generator, commissioned in 1998. Each cell had a capacity of 80 watts. Today, Solar power in Australia is a fast-growing industry. In 2014, Australia surpassed four gigawatts of solar capacity. Estimates suggest that more than 40% of Queenslanders and South Australians are using solar panels. As of December 2020, Australia has over 2.66 million solar PV installations, which have a combined capacity of 20,198 MW. Of this, 3,906 MW were installed in 2020 alone. In 2019 fifty-nine solar PV projects with a combined capacity of 2,881 MW were either constructed, had begun construction or were slated to shortly begin after having reached financial closure. In 2020, solar power accounted for 9.9% of Australia’s total electrical production. The ‘solar boom’ that Australia has seen since 2018 has transformed the nation from being a relative laggard to an industry leader in short order. On the eve of 2019, Australia’s total PV capacity was 16.3 GW, making it the highest per-capita solar capacity with 600 watts per capita. Australia had effectively beaten out Germany with its impressive 580 watts per capita.
This goes to show that while solar power in Australia has come a long way, it still has a long way to go. There is still much room for expansion and exploration, as Australia’s photovoltaic production and its accompanying innovation enter high-gear. Solar panels in Australia and major cities like Melbourne, Sydney and Hallam still have a bright future and a long road ahead.
The Current State of Solar Power in Australia.
From 2009 to 2011, solar power in Australia increased ten-fold and quadrupled again from 2011 to 2016. Along with this impressive surge, the price of photovoltaics has also been decreasing steadily. In January 2013, using solar energy was less than half the cost of using grid electricity in Australia. Solar panels in Australia are quickly becoming a mainstay for the average consumer. Part of the reason for Australia’s ever-increasing use of solar panels and photovoltaic technology is its insolation potential. Australia’s climate and latitude are ideal for solar energy production. Given that it receives in excess of 4 kilowatt-hours (14 MJ) per square meter per day in the winter months, the continent’s topography is favourable for large-scale solar installations. The northern regions of Australia exceed 6 kilowatt-hours (22 MJ) per square meter per day. These values exceed the average values in most of North America, Europe and Russia. Comparable values can be found in the deserts of northern and southern Africa, the southwestern United States and adjacent to Mexico. However, it is worth mentioning that most areas with the highest insulation potential in Australia are distant from the nation’s population centres. In the long term, this may raise some unique challenges for photovoltaic use on a massive scale, but that is a consideration for a different time.
Rooftop Solar Potential
The Institute for Sustainable Futures and the School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering (SPREE) at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) estimate that Australia has the potential to install 179 GW of solar power from rooftop solar panel installations alone. By early 2019, a study conducted by the aforementioned institutes found that Australia has utilised less than five percent of its potential rooftop solar capacity. The study further found that Australia could theoretically install 245 TWh worth of solar capacity from rooftop installations. For reference, the annual grid consumption in Australia is just under 200 TWh per annum. Furthermore, the Australian government has been and continues to be extremely supportive of solar installations. There are a number of rebates customers can take advantage of while installing solar panels in Australia. To begin with, the Solar Homes and Communities Plan was an AUD 8000 rebate provided by the Australian government for use in community and household installations (other than schools). This rebate was phased out in June 2009 and replaced by the Solar Credits Program. In this program, an installation of solar power was liable to receive 5 times as many Renewable Energy Certificates for the first 1.5 kilowatts of capacity under the Renewable Energy Target (More on this later). For schools, the National Solar Schools Program began on July 1, 2008, replacing the Green Vouchers for Schools program. The new program made schools eligible for grants of up to AUD 50,000 to install 2 kW solar panels. In addition to these rebates, the Victorian state government also assisted homeowners and tenants by providing them with a rebate of AUD 1,888 and an equivalent interest-free loan to enable them to install solar panels.
As far as rebates go, Australia is divided into four zones. Depending on the zone in which one lives, an applicant will receive a certain amount of STCs. An STC is a Small-Scale Technology Certificate, which provides an incentive for small to mid-sized businesses to install solar panels to power their offices. The amount of STCs an applicant will receive is directly proportional to the size of their solar installation (measured per kilowatt). The STC initiative is set to end by December 30, 2030. Until then, the government gives out increasingly lesser numbers of STCs per kilowatt. STCs are calculated and issued based on the following formula: (System size in kW) x (Deeming period year) x (Postcode zone rating).
Renewable Energy Targets
The first mandatory renewable target (MRET) was introduced in 2001. It was designed to ensure that renewable energy achieves a 20% share of Australia’s electricity supply. The MRET was slated to increase Australia’s solar production capacity from 9,500 gigawatt-hours to 45,000 gigawatt-hours by 2020. This represents a 4% increase in renewable energy generation overall and a doubling of generation since 1997.
In December 2007 the Commonwealth and the states agreed during a meeting at the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) to combine both the Commonwealth and individual state schemes into a unified national scheme. In May 2008 (the same year the MRET was scheduled for implementation), the Productivity Commission released a report stating that an abrupt switch from coal to renewable energy would not only leave coal-fired plants at risk of “crashing out of the system”, but it would also drive up power prices without sufficiently impacting greenhouse gas emissions. The Productivity Commission is an independent research and advisory body tasked with advising the Australian government on important social, environmental and economic issues. Nonetheless, this forecast was overlooked on the basis that the Australian government set up an AUD 20 billion compensation program to be paid under the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.
In August 2009 the MRET was dubbed the Expanded Renewable Energy Target and extended to 2030. It was to ensure that renewable energy reached 20% of Australia’s total energy supply by 2020. In 2014, South Australia had achieved its goal of 20% renewable energy supply and set a new target of 33% for 2020. New South Wales and Victoria reached their targets of 20% and 25% respectively by 2020. The success of the MRET meant that it was inevitably extended to 2030, at which point it will be phased out steadily and will be replaced by proposed Emissions Trading Scheme and other improvements in both manufacturing and efficiency, that should allow solar panels in Australia to become cheaper and more readily available. This will theoretically reduce the solar industry’s reliance on government support and allow it to begin standing on its own.
Major Providers of Solar Panels in Australia
It should now be amply clear that solar energy is the way to the future in Australia. Given this popularity of solar energy, it should come as no surprise that there are a plethora of companies that supply customers with high-quality solar panels in Australia. It is therefore important to explore in detail some of the finest suppliers and manufacturers of solar panels in major cities like Melbourne, Sydney and Hallam. Australia is home to a wide variety of solar providers from all over the world. While 80% of these providers are Chinese, there is no shortage of European providers as well. Top tier providers include world-renowned companies like FIMER, Jolywood, Aleo, Longi, APS, RECOM and others. In addition to these companies, suppliers and providers like Prosun and Integra solar have also made a name for themselves in Australia’s booming solar panel industry. Suppliers like this act as vital bridge ways, connecting customers with solar companies and apprising clients of the most suitable solutions for their specific needs. In a world where options are plentiful, competition is healthy, and growth is all but assured, suppliers like Prosun, Integra Solar and others are as vital as the companies whose panels they supply.
Solar Rebates and Renewable Energy Subsidies
With a wide range of rebates and Federal and State Government subsidies available, Australians all over the country have been installing solar panels in unprecedented numbers. As stated earlier, these rebates include Small-scale Technology Certificates (STCs); Large-scale Generation Certificates (LGCs); SA Home Battery Scheme for South Australians; and the Solar Victoria Rebate for Victorians. The Victorian government rebates are ideal for customers wanting to install solar panels in Melbourne. However, it is important to mention that as the Mandatory Renewable Target (MRT) inches closer and closer to completion, the values of these rebates are steadily decreasing. It is therefore vital for customers making the switch to renewable energy to be well appraised of the financial incentives, rebates and subsidies available to make installing solar panels as smooth and affordable as possible.
Part of why these rebates, subsidies and feed-in tariffs are so essential to the solar industry is the cost of admission. Government relief means that a consumer’s electricity bills will be reduced over the twenty-five-year lifespan of a solar setup, providing a huge return on investment. Yet the upfront cost of installation is too prohibitively steep for the average Australian to afford. Therefore, a comprehensive overview of government and support is essential for financially conscious customers. A detailed analysis of these rebates will be covered in the next part of this blog.