The Albanese government has extended funding for Australia’s world-leading solar energy scientists as they race to increase panel efficiency and shift to more abundant materials before constraints on silver and other metals hobble the industry’s growth.
The Australian Renewable Energy Agency will announce on Friday that it will grant $45m to the University of NSW-based Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics over the next eight years. Most of the money will be spent within the first five years.
The money will ensure as many as 60 scientists will retain funding, although the annual budget is about the rate of the previous 10-year grant. It will involve two additional partners, the University of Sydney and CSIRO’s Newcastle energy group, and will seek to foster further growth by drawing in commercial partners.
“Australia has all the ingredients to become a renewable energy superpower with this Government working collaboratively to ensure secure, affordable, and reliable energy that drives down emissions,” the energy minister, Chris Bowen, said.
“It’s a global race [and] we’ve for a long time we’ve been at the front of that, and been able to attract people internationally … and that’s still the case,” said Prof Renate Egan, who is UNSW’s lead at the center.
Australian researchers have pioneered a range of solar technologies, with as much as 90% of the world’s annual panel production drawing on that pedigree. The Australian National University, the University of Melbourne, Monash University, the University of Queensland, and CSIRO’s Clayton unit in Melbourne are partners of the center.
Martin Green, the UNSW professor who has long led the center’s research, developed cells with a 20% efficiency of converting sunlight to electricity in 1989 and doubled that rate for lab cells by 2014, among many achievements. Centre graduates also pepper many of the world’s big solar firms.
“The next decade promises to be the most exciting and important in solar photovoltaics, ever, with massively increased uptake and technological change,” Green said.
Egan said solar energy now provides only 3-4% of global electricity and about 15% in Australia. “We need to take that to over 50% here and internationally” to enable the transition of fossil fuels and limit the impacts of heating climate, she said. “We’re only just beginning on the solar technology development.”
The comprehensive research would help Arena meet its goals of mass production of solar cells with a 30% efficiency at 30 cents a watt by 2030. Panels on the market now can operate with 23-24% efficiency costing about 70 cents/watt.
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Achieving those goals will not be easy. The new funding will work on so-called tandem cells that stack two or more layers of materials to capture more energy from the light spectrum and operate more durably, particularly under higher temperatures.
“We know it’s possible, but we’re going to end up with a completely different material set and structure,” Egan said.
The need to identify new minerals is partly driven because the present use of silver, in particular, will soon be challenging for the global solar industry. With production doubling every three years for the past three decades, the solar PV industry consumes about 10% of the world’s silver in its 200 gigawatts of capacity added yearly.
“So we can’t double and double it. Otherwise, we’re using 50% of the world’s silver, which would create a supply bottleneck and a price challenge,” Egan said, adding several alternative materials are being worked on, but more research is needed.
The center will also look to collaborate to develop manufacturing capacity in Australia. At 4GW of panels being installed annually, the local market is nearing the volumes necessary to justify onshore production, particularly if plans by Sun Cable and other firms for giant solar farms of 20GW each or larger proceed, she said.
She said that Australia’s best prospects might be in silicon refining, with wafer and cell processing done elsewhere and final module work done locally.
Richard Corkish, another UNSW professor and the center’s chief operating officer, said the funding extension would be critical because there are only a few ways the world can reduce emissions from energy use at a pace fast enough to head off the climate crisis.
“The big two are solar PV and wind,” and improved energy efficiency, Corkish said. “Solar PV will be the one in the long term.”