A total of 62 renewable energy scientists and researchers have asked the federal government to reverse its decision to end the grant funding program of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, which is to be stripped of $1.3 billion legislated by the previous Labor government.
The scientists, from a range of Australian universities, said that grant funding was an essential component of technology innovation. “This new policy will damage Australian renewable energy R&D, early stage commercialisation and education,” they wrote in a letter.
Their concerns echo those of former ARENA chair Greg Bourne and renewable energy groups. Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull has proposed a new “Clean Energy Innovation Fund”, but it will use funds already allocated to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and will only provide equity and finance.
That, says Bourne and others, misses a key part of the innovation chain, particularly at the early stage of development.
The 62 scientists, including solar pioneers Andrew Blakers (ANU) and Martin Green (UNSW), and including researchers and scientists from ANU, UNSW, Monash, and University of Melbourne, says grants for innovation over the last 40 years has enabled Australia to punch “very far above its weight” in renewable energy innovation.
“Competitive grants are accepted worldwide as a highly effective method of supporting R&D and early stage commercialisation,” it writes.
“Equity returns, as proposed for ARENA, have rarely been effective in Australia at an early stage in the innovation chain. Very few projects that ARENA has funded would have proceeded under this proposal. In contrast, sustained provision of grants leads to technology development and education, and substantial benefits flow to Australia.
“Grant-supported renewable energy R&D and education is a crucial part of climate change mitigation, and will be seriously downgraded by this new policy. We urge the Government to continue ARENA’s grant funding role in order to support R&D, early stage commercialisation and education.”
It cited examples of Australian grant-supported innovation, including the Australian-developed PERC silicon solar cell, which it noted constitutes about half of new solar cell production lines worldwide, and will soon dominate the worldwide solar industry.
This technology, the scientists noted, provided 5 per cent relative efficiency improvement on 50 per cent of Australian photovoltaic systems.
Translated over a 10-year period from 2018-2028, with an average annual installation rate of 2GW per year and average area-related costs of $1,500 per kilowatt, this improvement translates to savings of $750 million. Worldwide, the savings are about 50 times larger.
Other developments cited included:
- The Australian-developed hydrogen-passivation of defects is likely to be adopted by much of the world’s solar industry;
- Australian-developed advanced characterisation systems are being commercialised in Australia;
- The Australian-developed Sliver solar cell technology has been the subject of a $240 million commercialisation endeavour;
- The Australian-developed Buried Contact solar cell has had a substantial impact upon worldwide solar cell production;
- A large fraction of Asian technology and business leaders in the solar industry received their undergraduate or postgraduate degrees, or technology training, in Australia.
“Benefits to Australia from these achievements include royalty payments, investment by foreign companies in Australian R&D and Australian companies; student fees; preferential arrangements by foreign alumni; and international prestige at events such as the Paris climate conference,” the scientists said.
“Importantly, the large impact of Australia’s grant-supported researchers in accelerating the worldwide solar industry has major benefits for Australia in terms of reduced greenhouse gas emissions and reduced prices for Australian solar energy systems.
“Since photovoltaics now constitutes approximately one-quarter of new electricity generation capacity installed worldwide each year (and rising fast), greenhouse benefits (from acceleration of industry growth and hence reduced emissions) are starting to flow in substantial measure.”
Giles Parkinson is founder and editor of RenewEconomy.com.au, and is also the founder of OneStepOffTheGrid.com.au and founder/editor of www.TheDriven.io. Giles has been a journalist for 35 years and is a former business and deputy editor of the Australian Financial Review.