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Scientists say proposed cuts could “wipe out” solar research in Australia

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Australia’s world-leading solar research scientists have called on both major political parties to re-assess their positions on the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, saying that the move to cut funding could “unintentionally kill” solar cell research in Australia.

Martin Green, from UNSW, and Andrew Blakers, from ANU, rated as the country’s two leading solar researchers, said Australia solar research could be lost overseas if the proposed funding cuts – by both the Coalition and Labor – became law.

The Coalition has proposed to remove $1.3 billion of unspent funds from ARENA and revoke its ability to issue grants Labor says it will reserve $300 million of funding for large scale solar thermal projects and community energy, but will then cut the remaining $1 billion of grant funding.

Green and Blakers say this could be disastrous for solar cell and other research in Australia, and the two major parties do not appear to understand what they are doing.

 

Martin_Green_Image_National_Australia_Day_Council

“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 Green, (pictured) a pioneer of solar cells who has led the field for much of his 40 years at 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. Our researchers would find employment overseas very easily, and we’d lose that expertise.”

The two scientists also warned that “scores of early-career researchers stand to lose their jobs next year, leaving many PhD students in limbo and severely curtailing training and expertise in the renewable sector.”

This is not the first warning on the issue. A former ARENA chairman, Greg Bourne, said last month that the move to de-fund ARENA would cause much research and early-stage development to shift overseas, despite the Turnbull government’s mantras of “innovation” and “jobs and growth.”

Green and Blakers were among 62 leading researchers who have already protested against the move and written to government, and more another 130 more researchers and 61 undergraduate students wrote to Environment Minister Greg Hunt, making the same call.

Earlier this month Green, while announcing a massive leap in solar cell efficiency that could dramatically reduce the cost of solar, repeated that warning, releasing a report at the time saying that Australian solar cell research had delivered more than $8 billion in economic benefits to Australia in the past decade, Gains in efficiency alone, made possible by PERC cells, are forecast to save $750 million in Australia’s electricity generation over the next 10 years.

PERC cells were invented at UNSW by Blakers, Green and others and are now becoming the commercial standard globally, with sales of US$9 billion a year. But advances in photovoltaics continue, promising to deliver better efficiencies and ever cheaper cells.

“Australia has a tremendous track record of leadership in photovoltaics,” Blakers said.

“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.”

Other significant research includes the the development of a new flexible solar cell for zero-energy buildings that is non-toxic and cheap to manufacture. At ANU, work on advanced materials and high efficiency tandem cell designs are showing great promise in further decreasing the costs of solar energy.

They noted that ARENA is the major funder for Australia’s solar researcher labs, and the move to de-fund it came as the world’s largest oil companies are sinking billions into electric battery storage systems and wind farms, and when a record US$286 billion was invested in renewables in the past year alone.

“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.”

Recently, 130 more researchers and 61 undergraduate students wrote to Environment Minister Greg Hunt, making the same call.  

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  • nakedChimp

    Pretty easy.. the mining boom is over, the FF resources can’t be dug out anymore and the window of opportunity to saddle another horse with the revenue of this has closed.
    And to top it of – the knee-jerk reaction of the last 3 years managed to stifle and weaken the RE technology/economy profoundly.

    Australia on this path is destined to become a purchaser/consumer of RE tech mostly as other countries seized that opportunity.
    That’s a job well done.

    • MaxG

      Spot on… has got nothing to do with cynicism. We have a government that dismantles everything that benefits the people, and pillages/privatises where corporations can make a buck, without regard for the future of this country.

      • solarguy

        And how the bastards seem to revel in it too!

  • john

    The problem is to be able to give tangible immediate demonstration of research, people want to see some article rolling off a production line as soon as the research has been completed.
    This of course is not possible as it takes some time from lab to fabrication and sales of an item.
    The long term value is many times the input of funds into research, however the short attention span of the population is oblivious to the underlying value and discounts it.
    Rather a pity really where the “I want it now” attitude is all encompassing.
    With the movement to RE we should be focused intensively on this area of research and not how to build a better truck to carry coal.

  • Brendan Lee

    The world’s largest oil companies are sinking billions into electric battery storage systems and wind farms, and when a record US$286 billion was invested in renewables in the past year alone. – Can we bring their money into this? Cynicism aside, if they are serious about changing path, they have the means and the resources.

  • solarguy

    Mark Butler made a statement recently, that Labor was committed to funding for ARENA. Why hasn’t that been noted?

  • Alen T

    From a political perspective, Labor is doing the logical thing and countering the government where it has public support. Therefore as there has been little or no noticeable outcry over defunding ARENA [again] and in fact Turnbull’s Clean Energy Innovation body has been mostly positively received, Labor as a political organisation aiming to win back government is again doing and taking the logical path and concentrating where the public’s attention is.

    I’m not saying I agree with it, far from it, but I just wish the renewable energy industry would finally start to collaborate and take action to make the public clearly aware what is happening and of the real situation is. Politicians have and are continuing to do do their best to destroy this sector. They do this because there’s no/little fear of [political] retribution. We need to change this. After the last two years, I would say it’s time for the sector to wake up and become a greater influence, or the other option relocate to Germany.

    • solarguy

      Alan, the RE sector has done a hell of a lot, namely the Australian Solar Council and to a lesser extent the CEC. If you follow RE Economy you would know that. Solar Citizens has done their part, as well as the ATA.
      Time mate to do your part and vote the LIBS out. There has been enough outcry about de funding ARENA, so it’s time for you to react at the ballot box. Go for it tiger!