Big Solar BBQ

Big thanks to Climate Action Canberra and 100% renewables for having us along to their Big Solar BBQ. Lawrence McIntosh from Canberra Clean Energy & SolarShare spoke about our community solar farm. Andrew Blakers from the ANU also gave a great update on where the global outlook sits for renewable energy and for solar power over the next few years.

Register your interest here to support this project and stay up to date as we release more of the details over the coming months.

You can read further to see what Professor Andrew Blakers covered in his talk. Many thanks to Andrew for giving us permission to post it here.




Andrew Blakers


Solar energy is special. It is vast, ubiquitous and indefinitely sustainable. The solar resource is hundreds of times larger than all other available energy resources combined.

Solar energy utilises only very common materials; has minimal security and military risks; is available nearly everywhere in vast quantities; and has minimal environmental impact over unlimited time scales.

No other energy source can make claims that come anywhere near these. Solar energy is a complete long term sustainable solution. Australia receives 20,000 times more solar energy each year than all fossil fuel use combined. Australia has a significant presence in the worldwide solar energy industry, which can be built upon to create a major export-oriented technology-rich industry.

Energy supply options

There are five potentially available energy sources.  These are energy from the sun (in its various forms), nuclear energy (fission and fusion), fossil energy (coal, oil and gas), tidal energy and geothermal energy.

Solar energy is available on a massive scale, and is inexhaustible.  Solar energy includes both direct radiation (photovoltaics and solar heat) and indirect forms such as biomass, wind, hydro, ocean thermal and waves. The direct solar energy resource is far larger than the indirect solar energy resource. Collection and conversion entails few environmental problems. Mass deployment entails minimal security risks, because of the intrinsic safety and wide distribution of the collectors. Because of the ubiquity of solar energy we will never go to war over access to solar energy.

Nuclear energy from fission of heavy metals has substantial problems relating to nuclear accidents, nuclear weapons proliferation, nuclear terrorism, uranium and thorium deposit limitations, and waste disposal. Nuclear energy from fusion of light elements (similar to processes in the sun) is still several decades away from commercial utilisation, but may make a major contribution to sustainable energy supply in the future.

Fossil fuels are the principal cause of the enhanced greenhouse effect and are subject to resource depletion.  Other problems include oil spills, oil-related warfare (for example, the Gulf wars) and pollution from acid rain, particulates and photochemical smog.

Tidal energy can be collected using what amounts to a coastal hydroelectric system.  Geothermal energy in volcanic regions or from hot dry rocks can be used to generate steam for district heating or to drive a steam turbine to produce electricity.  Tidal and geothermal energy utilise relatively small and geographically restricted energy resources.


Photovoltaics (PV) is an elegant technology for the direct production of electricity from sunlight without moving parts. Most of the world’s PV market is serviced by crystalline silicon solar cells. Sunlight causes electrons to become detached from their host silicon atoms. Near the upper surface is a “one way membrane” called a pn-junction. When an electron crosses this junction it cannot easily return, causing a negative voltage to appear on the sunward surface (and a positive voltage on the rear surface). The sunward and rear surfaces can be connected together via an external circuit containing a battery or a load in order to extract current, voltage and power from the solar cell.

Hitherto PV found widespread use in niche markets such as consumer electronics, remote area power supplies and satellites. In recent year the industry has expanded and costs have declined very rapidly. PV systems are being installed on tens of millions of house roofs in cities, and also in large ground mounted power stations. Mass production is causing rapid reductions in cost. PV electricity is now less expensive than domestic and commercial retail electricity from the grid throughout most of the world, and is approaching cost-competitiveness with wholesale conventional electricity.

Most PV systems are mounted on fixed support structures. Some PV systems are mounted on sun-tracking systems to maximise output, while others use sun-tracking concentrators to concentrator light by 10-1000 times onto a small number of highly efficient solar cells.

PV systems mounted on house roofs can be used to achieve household carbon neutrality. A collector area of about 25m2 is needed to carbon-neutralise a 5 star (energy rating) house with gas space heating, solar/gas water heating and efficient electrical appliances. Such a house exports more electricity to the grid during the day than it imports at night. An additional 5-10m2of PV panel is required to offset the annual greenhouse gas emissions of an efficient car.

PV panels on domestic and commercial building roofs compete with retail electricity prices, which are several times higher than wholesale electricity prices. The unsubsidised cost of rooftop PV generation has fallen below the daytime retail electricity price (“retail grid parity”) throughout most of the world (except in northern latitudes). This is expected to drive rapid growth as hundreds of millions of home and commercial building owners adopt the technology. In Australia, there are more than one million PV systems on the roofs of houses. Grid parity has been achieved because of falling PV costs, rising fossil fuel costs, the introduction of carbon pricing and the introduction of time-of-use tariffs. Time-of-use tariffs properly reward PV systems for generating during sunny summer afternoons when peak loads caused by air conditioning, commerce and industry lead to high energy prices.

The efficiency of PV is eventually likely to rise above 60%, compared with the current world record efficiency of 44%. The cost of PV systems can be confidently expected to continue to decline for decades – as has happened with the related integrated circuit industry.

Solar thermal

Good building design, which allows the use of natural solar heat and light, together with good insulation, minimises the requirement for space heating. Solar water heaters are directly competitive with electricity or gas in most parts of the world.

Solar thermal electricity technologies use sun-tracking mirrors to concentrate sunlight onto a receiver. The resulting heat is ultimately used to generate steam, which passes through a turbine to produce electricity. Concentrator methods are equally applicable to concentrating PV systems. The usual ways of concentrating sunlight are point focus concentrators (dishes), line focus concentrators (troughs, both reflective and refractive) and central receivers (heliostats and power towers).

There is a large crossover between the technology of solar thermal and PV solar concentrators.  The concentrating systems are quite similar, with the major technical difference being the solar receiver mounted at the focus: a black solar absorber in one case, and a PV array in the other. Since efficiencies are similar, the cost of energy produced by the two types of concentrator system is also similar.

An important future application of concentrated sunlight is the generation of thermochemicals and the storage of heat at high temperature in molten salt to allow for 24 hour power production. Concentrated solar energy can achieve the same temperatures as fossil and nuclear fuels, either directly (using mirrors) or through the use of chemicals (thermochemicals or bio fuels) created using concentrated solar energy.  In the past, heavy industry (e.g. the steel industry) was often located near coalfields, in regions that are relatively poorly endowed with solar energy.  Future steel mills could be built in the iron ore and solar energy rich Pilbara region of Western Australia.

Energy efficiency

Hand in hand with the utilisation of solar energy goes energy efficiency and conservation.  ‘Solar energy’ and ‘energy efficiency’ are often the same thing.  For example, an energy-efficient building is a building that utilises natural solar light and heat sensibly.  Walking rather than driving a car uses a small amount of solar energy (food) rather than a larger amount of oil energy. A clothesline, solar salt production and putting on extra clothing displaces an electric clothes dryer, fossil-fuel fired kiln drying of salt and electric heating respectively.

Baseload power and storage

It is sometimes claimed, wrongly, that the absence of sunshine at night means that solar energy cannot dominate energy production.

Options for the provision of stable and continuous solar power include actively shifting loads from night to daytime; wide geographical dispersion of solar collectors to minimise the effect of cloud; precisely predicting solar energy output using satellite imagery and other detectors; diversification of energy supply to include all renewables; and energy storage.

Pumped hydro (whereby water is pumped uphill during the day and released through turbines at night to provide energy) is an efficient, economical and commercially available storage option that constitutes 99% of current storage for the electricity industry. Lakes covering 100 km2 (about 5 m2 per citizen), utilising either fresh water or seawater, would be sufficient to provide 24 hour storage of Australia’s entire electricity production. Storage of heat from solar thermal electric systems in the form of molten salt and other media are attractive for spreading the production of electricity into the evening. Another future large-scale day-night storage option is the batteries of millions of electric cars. In the longer term, long-distance high voltage DC transmission will further improve the robustness of a renewable electricity system.

Environmental impacts

The solar energy industry has minimal environmental impact. About 0.1% of the world’s land area would be required to supply all of the world’s electricity requirements from solar energy. Indeed, the area of roof is sufficient to provide all of Australia’s electricity, using PV panels.

We can never run out of the raw materials for solar energy systems because the principal elements required (silicon, oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, sodium, aluminium and iron) are among the most abundant on earth. Old solar energy systems can be recycled without significant generation of toxic by-products. Gram for gram, advanced silicon solar cells produce the same amount of electricity over their lifetime as nuclear fuel rods. Per tonne of mined material, solar energy systems have 100-fold better lifetime energy yield than either nuclear or fossil energy systems.

The time required to generate enough electricity to displace the CO2 equivalent to that invested in construction of a solar energy system is in the range 1-2 years, compared with typical system lifetimes of 30 years. CO2 payback and price are directly linked (via material consumption), and so CO2 payback times will continue to fall, and will eventually decline to below 1 year.

The future of solar energy

Renewable energy technologies can eliminate fossil fuels within a few decades, allowing a fully sustainable and zero carbon energy future.

Roof-mounted solar energy systems can provide photovoltaic electricity, hot water for domestic and industrial use, and thermal energy to heat and cool buildings. Grid parity for photovoltaics at a retail level has already been achieved for most of the world’s population. This is leading to rapid growth in sales in the residential and commercial sectors without the need for subsidies.

Large PV and solar concentrator power stations, in conjunction with wind and hydro energy, can provide most of the world’s electricity. High concentration solar thermal can provide process heat and thermochemicals.

Solar electricity, coupled with a shift to electrically powered cars and public transport, can provide most of the world’s transport energy. A vast fleet of electric cars, each with large batteries, represents a large electricity storage facility to smooth supply and demand.

Direct competitiveness with fossil fuels for wholesale energy supply is assisted by carbon pricing and the removal or equalisation of hidden support for fossil fuels.

In addition to direct solar energy collection, indirect forms of solar energy such as wind, biomass, wave and hydro can make important contributions. However, the indirect solar resource base is tiny in comparison with the direct sunshine utilised by PV and solar thermal. Mass deployment of some of these technologies (notably hydro and biomass) has substantial deleterious impacts. For example, PV and solar thermal enjoy a 20 to 100-fold advantage in annual energy harvest per km2, which minimises alienation of land. In addition, PV and solar thermal avoid the need for water, pesticides and fertilisers, and do not compete with food production.

Solar energy in Australia

The solar power industry in Australia is supported by carbon pricing and the 20% renewable electricity target, and is constrained by lack of lack of a time-of-use tariff and a wide range of built-in (and often hidden) support measures for fossil fuels which keeps fossil fuel prices low. Time-of-use tariffs (whereby electricity generation and consumption has a value that varies throughout the day) are important for solar energy, since solar energy production often coincides with high daytime electricity prices driven by demands from industry and air conditioners.

Photovoltaics is an area of real Australian research and commercialisation strength. Photovoltaics is a strong innovation performer, in terms of performance metrics such as research papers, competitive grants and commercialisations.

Support for solar energy in Australia should be focused on intellectual property (IP) generation and the export of IP-rich high-value products and services. This strategy would comprise substantial support for R&D, and professional education, coupled with strong incentives for companies to manufacture high value products in Australia for export.

Further reading

Centre for Sustainable Energy Systems, Australian National University,