Australia is already global trailblazer when it comes to solar energy. We’re one of the sunniest countries on earth, leading the world in the development of solar technology, and we have a higher percentage of households with rooftop solar than just about anywhere else.
All of this was made possible by government investment in renewable technologies.
The most recent International Renewable Agency (IRENA) report, A New World: The Geopolitics of the Energy Transformation, highlights which nations will benefit most from the transition to a wholly renewable energy market as fossil-fuel lead economies become more and more unstable.
Australia comes in very close to the top, with our “economically-demonstrated solar and wind energy resources estimated to be 75 per cent greater than [our] combined coal, gas, oil and uranium resources.”
This is where Australia stands to reap enormous economic, environmental and social benefits well into the future, and to lay solid economic foundations for generations to come. We are positioned to lead the global economic recovery from the devastation brought by COVID-19, by continuing to heavily invest in the renewables sector—at every level.
From research, to industrial installations to transitioning the national grid to 100% renewable energy, to transport systems powered by renewables and massively expanded Australian minerals processing and manufacturing, using local resources and local renewable energy.
These are enormous opportunities that will bring solid jobs to tens of thousands of Australians.
It can seem hard to remember right now that only a few short months ago parts of the country were on fire to an extent unseen in our recorded history.
It was already crystal clear then that as a nation we needed to move extremely fast to address climate change; to reduce our emissions and to transition as quickly as we can to an all renewable economy.
We owe it to future generations to leave them with an environmentally and economically safe future. This is our moral responsibility.
Yet, even among all this, our future solar gains are under threat. In late February, Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor announced that the Government intends to stop funding solar and wind research, saying that there has been sufficient public investment in those sectors.
But this couldn’t be further from the truth. While renewables have demonstrably made huge inroads into driving down our electricity sector emissions, there’s still a lot of work to be done if Australia is to make the shift to the all renewable-powered economy that we’ll need in order to face the environmental and economic challenges ahead.
Solar cells invented in Australia now make up the majority of solar production worldwide. That’s an achievement that we can all be proud of.
At the solar photovoltaics research lab at the University of New South Wales Sydney, where I have the privilege of working, we’ve broken a string world records on the fraction of sunlight that can be converted into electricity.
It was on the back of these achievements that Minister Taylor was able to highlight Australian clean technology innovation on the world stage at the UN Climate Change Conference last year.
He cited “unprecedented investment” in technology and innovation as the key to Australia’s emissions reductions policy, and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) as key in shaping solar into a powerful national force.
That’s why Minister Taylor’s February announcement to halt government support for solar and wind research was so surprising.
To turn away from a burgeoning industry that’s effectively driving down greenhouse gas emissions, creating jobs and revitalising regional areas at a crucial juncture is not helpful to our role in the global renewables revolution.
And with ARENA’s ongoing funding in question, a cloud looms over our sunny solar future.
While there have undoubtedly been major advancements in the efficiency and affordability of solar, there are still huge gains to be made, and so an important job for ARENA still to do.
These include extending the operating life of solar panels, developing new photovoltaic materials and devices that boost the performance of low-cost silicon solar cells, solar transport integration, resource forecasting and security, and end-of-life recycling.
There is also enormous work to be done on integrating low-cost solar and wind power into our electricity grids, which were all built decades ago to be powered by coal.
Developing even cheaper, longer-lasting solar power is critical to power our domestic energy sector and to growing our renewable energy exports.
If we are to seize the opportunity that is before us, right now, to be world leaders in a coming global energy shift away from gas and oil and coal, it is not at all the time to be threatening to take funding away from the solar sector.
Recently we have seen an unprecedented ability for government to come together in agreement to get legislation passed, quickly, in the interest of all Australians. We know now that it is possible. We know that ideologies can be discarded in the face of crisis in order to deal with that crisis.
We know that our governments do accept and act on scientific consensus for our common good. Australia’s renewable energy abundance and low population density, together with our well-educated and hardworking people, give us the chance to be a powerhouse for global recovery.
Our call is for government to not wait for another global economic crisis to spur our continued investment in a resilient, renewable economy.
Let’s plan now, on a huge scale, and ensure the safe future for our country, its people, its lands and its economic security.
Solar is one of Australia’s biggest success stories. Let’s build on that and support it with policy and investment to ensure that we remain at the forefront of global renewable energy research and development.
There will be a world after COVID-19, let’s make sure it is a just, cleaner and more efficient one.
Dr Richard Corkish is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Photovoltaics and Renewable Energy Engineering, at the University of New South Wales.