Photography: David Trood/Getty Images
The Albanian government has extended funding to Australia’s top solar scientists as they race to increase panel efficiency and switch to more abundant materials, before restrictions on silver and other metals derail the industry’s growth.
The Australian Renewable Energy Agency will announce on Friday that it will award $45 million over the next eight years to the Australian Center for Advanced Photovoltaics, based at the University of NSW. Most of the money will be spent in the first five years.
The money will ensure that up to 60 scientists retain funding, although annual funding will be approximately 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 drive further growth by attracting commercial partners.
“Australia has all the ingredients to become a renewable energy superpower with this government working collaboratively to ensure safe, affordable and reliable energy that reduces emissions,” said Energy Minister Chris Bowen.
“It’s a global race [and] we’ve been ahead of this for a long time and we’ve managed to attract people internationally … and that’s still the case,” said Professor Renate Egan, UNSW leader at the center.
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Australian researchers have pioneered a range of solar technologies with up to 90% of the world’s annual panel production based on this pedigree. The Australian National University, the University of Melbourne, Monash University, the University of Queensland and CSIRO’s Clayton unit in Melbourne are partners with the centre.
Martin Green, a UNSW professor who has long led the center’s research, developed cells with a 20% efficiency at converting sunlight into electricity in 1989 and doubled that rate for laboratory cells in 2014, among a long list of achievements. The center’s graduates also spice up many of the world’s big solar companies.
“The next decade promises to be the most exciting and important decade in solar PV ever, with a massive increase in acceptance and technological changes,” said Green.
Egan said solar energy now provides just 3-4% of global electricity and around 15% in Australia. “We need to get this to more than 50% here and internationally” to enable the transition from fossil fuels and limit the impacts of climate warming, she said. “We are just getting started in the development of solar technology.”
The extended research would help Arena meet its targets of mass-producing solar cells at 30% efficiency at a cost of 30 cents per watt by 2030. Panels on the market can now operate at 23-24% efficiency, at a cost of about 70 cents/watt.
Achieving these 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 at higher temperatures.
“We know it’s possible, but we’re going to end up with a completely different set of materials and a different structure,” Egan said.
The need to identify new minerals is motivated in part because the current use of silver, in particular, will soon be a challenge for the global solar industry. With production doubling every three years for the past three decades, the solar PV industry consumes around 10% of the world’s silver in its 200 gigawatts of capacity added annually.
“So we can’t duplicate and double it, otherwise we’re using 50% of the world’s silver, and that would clearly create a supply bottleneck and a price challenge,” Egan said, adding that several alternative materials are being worked on, but more research is needed.
The center will also look to further collaborate to develop manufacturing capacity in Australia. With 4GW of panels being installed annually, the local market is approaching the volumes needed to justify onshore production, particularly if plans by Sun Cable and other companies for giant solar plants of 20GW each or larger continue, she said.
Australia’s best prospects may lie in silicon refining, with wafer and cell processing done elsewhere and the final module work done locally, she said.
Richard Corkish, another UNSW professor and director of operations at the center, said the extent of funding will be critical because there are only a few ways the world can reduce emissions from energy use at a fast enough pace to avert the climate crisis. .
“The big two are solar PV and wind,” along with improving energy efficiency, Corkish said. “And in the long term, solar PV will be the only one.”