Ferguson Forks Over Funding

Solar Research Gets a Boost

Energy minister Martin Ferguson promised more than $83 million for collaborative projects between Australian and US researchers. The funding, made available through the Australian Solar Institute (ASI)’s United States-Australia Solar Energy Collaboration (USASEC), includes $68 million for two, eight year research programmes and $15.5 million for 11 collaborative research projects. The award “will see the establishment of two strategic research initiatives, the $33m US-Australia Institute for Advanced Photovoltaics (USAIAP) and the $35m Australian Solar Thermal Research Initiative (ASTRI),” said Minister Ferguson. “These initiatives will accelerate solar technology development faster than either country could do working alone.”

However, the award has come in for criticism, predictably because it is too small but also because it appears to be aimed at enabling the US to ‘catch up’ on science developed in large part in Australia. Solar initiatives have been meagre in the US, suffering, like all renewables, from resistance from the major oil interests in the country, while what alternative power there is has tended to be generated from wind or natural gas.

The US wind-power tax credit has previously proved controversial and been criticised as being too generous. It was previously axed in 1999, 2001 and 2003 and on each occasion there was a collapse in new construction. The credit equates to 2.2 US cents per kilowatt hour of power produced over ten years or $950,000 per large turbine. 2012 saw around 12 gigawatts of wind power capacity installed, more even than natural gas projects which have boomed on the back of cheap shale.

The first new body, ASTRI, is a $35 million project to “transform Australia into a global leader in Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) technologies,” organised by CSIRO. The USAIAP is led by world record-holding photovoltaic researchers at the University of New South Wales. It provides a pathway for research collaboration between Australian and American centres and agencies and will drive innovation and commercialisation. “We welcome such a significant government investment in renewable energy research and we are pleased that UNSW’s world-leading solar researchers have been recognised in this way,” said UNSW Vice-Chancellor Professor Fred Hilmer. UNSW’s School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering holds the world record in silicon solar cell efficiency.

The USAIAP will work with the recently announced National Science Foundation/US Department of Energy Research Center for Quantum Energy and Sustainable Technologies, based at Arizona State University, and involving Caltech, MIT and Georgia Tech. Also playing key roles are Australian and US-based companies including Suntech Australia, BT Imaging, Trina Solar Energy, BlueScope Steel and smaller start-ups.

A stand-out project to be funded will examine ways to reduce the cost of CSP to become a cost-competitive source of energy in Australia. This project aims to build on CSIRO’s existing solar air turbine technology to further drive down costs and offers the possibility of developing one of the most competitive zero emission technologies. The aim is to show that the cost of solar energy can be reduced to less than 10 cents/kWh compared to 20 to 25cents/kWh currently, making solar energy cost competitive with other forms of stationary electricity. It will do this by bringing together various advanced technology developments, including high efficiency receivers, thermal storage and a carbon dioxide Brayton Cycle. The supercritical carbon dioxide exhibits properties such that much less power is required for the compression part of the Brayton Cycle.

The net effect is that cycle efficiencies of 55 per cent are possible, compared to steam turbine cycles of 40 per cent at a very large scale. The carbon dioxide circulates around a closed loop and is not released. Improving efficiency allows for all parts of the CSP system to be smaller, reducing overall capital costs. For example, if efficiency is doubled then only half the mirror area is required, receivers and towers are smaller, the balance of plant cost is reduced and operation and maintenance costs are also reduced. It will also be able to operate at temperatures where thermal storage is viable, compared to air-based Brayton systems which need to operate above 1,000ºC. Importantly, this innovation can be installed in small, modular units – more attractive to investors. The project will use test facilities at Sandia National Laboratories and draw on NREL’s modelling and analysis expertise and experience developing components; University of Sydney heat exchange expertise; and Queensland University of Technology expertise in grid optimisation.

Other projects to be funded include a $6.7 million project to produce low cost, high efficiency copper-zinc-tin-sulphide (CZTS) on silicon multi-junction solar cells in partnership with Suntech R&D Australia, the NREL and the Colorado School of Mines.

A perennial critic of government policy, the non-profit Beyond Zero Emissions group, called Ferguson’s announcement “a diversion from actually building large solar” installations and claimed that if he really supported large scale solar energy, “he would have us build it now.” But BZE would presumably welcome the cash injection for CSP; it is a vocal proponent of such an installation at Port Augusta in South Australia, where two conventional and undeniably ‘dirty’ power stations are due to be phased out.

The official plan is for gas-fired power stations, but BZE and a coalition of activists are calling for replacing the emissions intensive Northern and Playford B brown coal power plants at Port Augusta with renewable energy. According to BZE, this proposal would “help Australia to take advantage of our natural competitive advantage of abundant solar energy. It would enable South Australia to become a world leader in renewable energy, and Port Augusta would become an iconic global hub for baseload solar power generation.” This scenario does not include solar PV power, as the focus is on providing baseload / dispatchable power that solar thermal power plants are able to deliver. However, either utility scale photovoltaic power plants, or solar panels on households and factories could certainly be incorporated into the mix, and there would be cost advantages in doing so.

But BZE is not abandoning solar PV, which is seen as a “crucial renewable power source and should be encouraged at all levels of government additional to this plan.” Six solar thermal power towers and ninety five wind turbines would replace these power plants and provide secure, affordable electricity to South Australia and the Eastern Australian grid. The development would more than secure the existing 250 jobs at local power stations, as well creating 1,300 construction jobs and 225 manufacturing jobs for South Australia, says BZE.

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

December 19, 2018, 9:22 AM AEDT