Suzy Freeman-Greene writes in The Age about the pitiful state of solar power in Australia, despite being blessed with more sun than just about anywhere:
IN MAY, John Howard called for a "full-blooded debate" on nuclear power. When the Prime Minister asks for debate, we oblige, and the issue has attracted headlines since. But while nuclear, wind power and even carbon geosequestration are the subject of spirited discussion as we grapple with global warming, there's a clean, green power source that barely seems to rate a mention. It's solar power.Freeman-Greene continues...
Australia is one of the world's sunniest countries and an innovator in solar research. "We used to be a world leader in solar power," says the Australian Conservation Foundation's Erwin Jackson. "Now we're falling abysmally behind countries like Japan."
For more than a decade, according to the New Internationalist, the Japanese Government has paid subsidies to householders who install photovoltaic panels on their roofs. The subsidies are being phased out but capacity is still expected to grow by 20 per cent a year.
Germany, meanwhile, has installed more than 100 times Australia's grid-connected solar capacity. "Yet if you put the same panel on a roof in Australia (where it's sunnier) it would produce twice as much capacity," says Jackson.
But in Australia, the Federal Government is quietly phasing out the rebates available to homeowners who install panels. The rebate has been replaced by the $75 million Solar Cities project, in which four locations will be used to demonstrate and trial solar technology. In North Adelaide, the first "solar city", panels and "smart meters" will be installed in 1700 homes.
The project will run until 2012-13. While worthy, it will be limited to just a few locations and seems small fry compared with what's going on elsewhere. In Spain, the Government has legislated to require solar panels in all new and renovated shopping centres, offices, hotels or warehouses. Jackson says about 70 per cent of the panels made at BP Solar's Sydney manufacturing plant are sold overseas.
It costs about $10,000 to $15,000 to put panels on your roof. We have the technology. We just need to make it cheaper. Says Haydn Fletcher from Melbourne firm Going Solar: "We already know how to become solar cities … What we need is policy change." He says the past 10 months have been the quietest he's seen.
No single power source can replace our reliance on coal; we need diversity. Solar is not the panacea. But there's so much more we could do to foster an affordable, large-scale industry. Far from a fringe affair, the foundation says solar PV is the fastest-growing energy technology in the world, with growth rates of 60 per cent annually over the past five years.
One effective way to encourage investment in solar power is to reward panel owners for the unused power they can feed into the electricity grid. Many in the local solar industry are calling for the introduction of a "feed-in tariff", where a small levy is added to all power bills. The money is then used to pay households or businesses for their excess solar power at a higher rate than that paid to dirtier sources.
Governments in Germany, Italy, China, Indonesia, Spain, South Korea and Switzerland have kick-started their industry with such a tariff. A draft proposal prepared by BP Solar and Conergy, says a feed-in tariff would cost the typical power consumer the equivalent of one cup of coffee a year (presumably about $3).
Things are happening slowly here. Melbourne firm Solar Systems has proposed a $420 million solar power station in north-western Victoria that could power 40,000 homes. Solar Systems and Boeing have developed the project using PV technology designed for satellites. They have applied for federal funding from the low emission technologies fund.
The State Government has legislated to require electricity retailers to meet 10 per cent of their energy needs through renewable sources by 2016. But the Victorian Opposition has pledged to scrap the scheme.
When the Prime Minister spoke in May, he described nuclear power, which produces radioactive waste, as "cleaner and greener than other forms of power".
Whose debate do we want to have? The one framed by politicians in thrall to the mining lobby or a discussion about genuinely clean forms of power? Clearly the Government wants to boost our coal and uranium industries, but in 100 years' time will there even be an economy around to protect?