So last week an ostensibly minor (but arguably major) event occurred to little fanfare – the US, for the first time, put more solar energy into the grid than Germany.
Germany, as you may know, has been a world leader in green energy (specifically solar – in July they added 5.1 terawatt hours of electricity from solar energy) but the US getting to this point is significant due the country’s famous reliance on fossil fuels. Admittedly, the US has a larger population and larger surface area so on a per capita basis it may not beat the Germans but let’s not take away from this event.
Solar is not a perfect means of generating energy on the one hand, but that ignores its multitude of benefits. Your average solar panel is only about 20-40% efficient, meaning you have 60-80% “wastage” due to reflection and other factors. To compensate for lost volume you often need substantial solar farms comprised of expensive and delicate receptors. Once you overcome this obstacle, then you have to deal with the limitations in battery technology. But, this ignores that Solar as a source is free; and that is has no harmful biproducts. There is no noxious pollutant produced from the conversion into energy of solar radiation; nor are you left with a substance that’s lethal to all life for decades, even centuries to come, after the fuel is spent.
Australia’s long been known for its sun-drenched landscape; poet Dorothy McKellar referred to it as a “sun-burnt country; a land of sweeping plains.” Yet progress on solar research here, despite a thriving start up industry, continues to lag behind where it arguably should be. This is an area where the government can show real leadership – and why I argued for the Clean Energy Finance Commission to be retained. The government claims to be a friend of innovation and capital; letting capital innovate and take on environmental policy gives jobs, GDP growth, and easy political points. Sadly it looks that despite no tangible economic benefit, the Fund (long known as “Bob Brown Bank”, which is a frankly churlish title) looks to be shut down.
Progress on solar is tied really to developments in super conductors and battery technology. Our latitude, and exposure to the sun, provides a fertile (pun intended) environment to become a leader in this field. Imagine having proprietary technology to export to energy intense neighbours to our north – and what advantages we could eke out being a leader here.