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.
“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.