May 27th, 2016 by Joshua S Hill
Two of Australia’s leading solar experts have warned of the dangers in cutting grant funding from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.
Australia’s two top solar researchers, Martin Green from the University of New South Wales (UNSW), and Andrew Blakers from the Australian National University (ANU), have called on both the country’s major political parties in the lead-up to the next national election to not “unintentionally kill” solar research in Australia by removing funding from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA).
Both the Liberal Party and the Labor Party have included moves to cut ARENA funding in their policy promises in the run-up to this year’s forthcoming election. The incumbent Liberal Turnbull Government is currently planning to revoke ARENA’s ability to issue research grants and strip the institutions of its $1.3 billion, returning it to consolidated revenue. Similarly, the Labor Opposition has also failed to commit to retain ARENA’s grant funding, promising only to reserve $305 million of the total $1.3 billion for large solar thermal demonstration projects.
“I don’t think this is a deliberate attempt to wipe out research into photovoltaics in this country – it’s more a case that the implications have slipped below the radar – but that’s what could happen,” said Martin Green, a pioneer of solar cells who has led the field for much of his 40 years at the UNSW.
“Continuity in funding is essential in solar cell research, so if you lose your funding for even a year or so, a lot of your expertise disappears as teams are disbanded,” Green continued. “Our researchers would find employment overseas very easily, and we’d lose that expertise.”
“Australia has a tremendous track record of leadership in photovoltaics,” added Andrew Blakers. “Severe curtailment of ARENA grants will cause loss of that leadership, loss of commercial opportunities, loss of hundreds of jobs, and severe downscaling of PhD and undergraduate student opportunities.”
The benefit of solar research funding is apparent in the work done by both the University of New South Wales and Australia National University, which according to a report recently published by Green, have brought over $8 billion in economic benefits into Australia over the past decade. Specifically, gains in efficiency alone, made possible by the development of PERC cells, invented at UNSW by Blakers, Green, and others, are expected to save $750 million in Australia’s electricity generation over the next ten years.
“Things are moving faster in solar cell efficiency than most experts expected, and that’s good news for solar energy,” said Green. “Extracting more energy from every beam of sunlight is critical to reducing the cost of electricity generated by solar cells, as it lowers the investment needed, delivering payback faster.”
Putting an end to ARENA’s ability to fund solar research could not only devastate future development of solar in Australia, but also send a catastrophic ripple through the industry by impacting research job numbers. This makes even less sense when you consider the sheer wealth of private funding being sunk into solar and battery storage from companies around the world, including fossil fuel companies aiming to diversify their business.
“It is important to continue and accelerate research and development spending to support the renewable energy revolution now under way,” said Blakers. “Photovoltaics and wind energy are fundamentally reshaping the way economies of the world are powered, so it’s a critical time for Australia to stay in the game if it is to reap further benefits from its leading position in research and education.”