Handicapped by 19th-century technology  

Posted by Big Gav

The SMH has an article on the Australian energy system - now and what it could be - Handicapped by 19th-century technology.

Renewable energy is the fastest growing power source in the world, and already generates baseload electricity on the scale of utilities. Large solar thermal plants with heat storage can dispatch power around the clock every day of the week regardless of whether the sun is shining, and make handsome profits during demand peaks.

Wind power is being installed on scales that dwarf Australian grid requirements. These and other clean energy technologies are replacing coal on modern grids. While Australia continues to throw money at 19th-century technologies, Spain, China, the US and others are charging ahead with zero-emissions power generation, and creating export markets.

Spain consumes about as much electricity as Australia, though its population is about twice as large. Like Australia, Spain is blessed with strong, consistent sunshine, and it uses this attribute to ensure energy security. Already it has built 24-hour baseload solar plants, using molten salt to store heat which is then used to create steam and turn turbines. It started with Andasol 1, a 50MW plant, and has now completed two similar projects. More than 1,800MW of projects are under construction and the government has just approved another 2,440MW for their feed-in tariff scheme for construction over the next three years.

The Gemasolar project is the shining light of the Spanish boom in baseload solar power. This solar thermal plant has created 1500 jobs and will operate at 60 to 100 per cent of maximum turbine output for up to 90 per cent of hours each year. Very low maintenance shutdown requirements allow this efficiency, far greater than coal-fired power generators in NSW. When the turbine is idle, heat is bled off the ''cold'' 290-degree salt storage tank to keep the turbine seals warm, allowing fast starting - as seen in the best hydro and gas plants. This capacity for baseload and fast-start ''dispatchable'' power generation places the Gemasolar plant among the highest-value electricity plants, a fact not lost on investors.

This solar generation capacity is in addition to Spanish wind power. Wind turbines supply 11 per cent of Spain's electricity demand, and this will more than double to 25 per cent by 2020. Another 6000MW of wind power is approved for installation in the next three years. That is just shy of three plants the size of the Bayswater power station near Muswellbrook, with all the jobs but no emissions.

Spain is phasing out coal and nuclear, and the companies that built the nuclear plants have re-tooled to build solar thermal plants with heat storage. These companies did not want to own the nuclear plants they built, but they have set up investment vehicles to own solar thermal plants.

Compared to the 10 years it takes to get a nuclear plant up and running, solar thermal plants with 24-hour baseload capacity have construction times as short as nine months, so such projects are not exposed to the same political, industrial and financial risks as nuclear plants. Envisaging a lucrative market for their solar infrastructure and expertise, the Spanish anticipate a healthy return on any subsidies for these technologies.

In China, solar hot water and photovoltaic (PV) panels have had huge commercial success. Maintenance-free evacuated tube solar hot water systems were developed in Australia. They are cheap - each tube wholesales for less than $5 and a system for a family costs less than $500. More than 50 million Chinese households now enjoy unlimited, free hot water from such systems.

China produces solar PV panels on a huge scale, and is the leading manufacturer of this technology for domestic rooftops. This triumph also owes much to Australian innovation, and to Australian governments' failure to support the industry on home soil.

The University of NSW solar PV team is the world leader in its field and holds the global efficiency record for ordinary silicon cells. Much of the technology in China, particularly from the leading company, Suntech, leverages off this Australian innovation.

The Chinese were also ahead of the game when the global financial crisis hit. Their government moved quickly to arrange for government buildings to purchase surplus industrial output. This meant the billions of dollars Chinese companies had invested in PV plants were not wasted when demand suddenly fell.

This is in stark contrast with the situation in Australia. Melbourne's Solar Systems has proven commercial success in displacing diesel in diesel/solar hybrid power generation for remote aboriginal communities. Solar Systems, a leader in its field, was unable to generate operational revenue and was forced into administration in August. With a bit of Chinese-style foresight, the Rudd government could have created a pipeline of projects for remote area power systems dependent on diesel. This would have been a responsible use of stimulus funds, and assured the company remained viable and ready for the boom after the global financial crisis.

Chinese wind power blows us away, too. A total of 30,000MW of wind power was planned to come online by 2020, but this target will be met early this year. China is now planning for 150,000MW of wind power by 2020, and again it is likely that this will be achieved much earlier.

Within the 150,000MW wind power target is the ''Three Gorges of Wind'' project. Named after the world's biggest engineering project, the Three Gorges dam, it will produce 70,000MW at seven large sites and twice as much electricity as the Three Gorges Dam, but cost half as much. The Three Gorges of Wind will produce about the same amount of electricity as the electricity grid on Australia's eastern seaboard.

Denmark obtains 20 per cent of its electricity from wind, and this will increase to 50 per cent by 2025. Wind turbines from the 1980s will be replaced with new models that are 30 times larger and much more efficient in a wide variety of wind conditions.

NSW alone is 19 times larger than Denmark. It has about the same population and experiences as much wind in any given place. Our national electricity grid extends from Tasmania and South Australia to far northern Queensland. With such a massive resource over a vast area, wind power can make a large contribution to Australian energy security.

Australia continues to rely on wasteful 19th-century technology. In periods of low demand, such as the dead of night, our antiquated coal-fired power stations throw energy away by blowing steam.

In Germany, policy decisions have boosted renewable energy sales and provided the environment for a high-tech manufacturing industry. This is despite the fact that, under often-grey northern skies, PV panels installed in Germany may produce 50 to 65 per cent less energy over their lifetime than equivalent panels in Australia. German households and businesses will add up to three gigawatts (GW) of photovoltaic generation by the end of this year, bringing the national total to eight GW. That is 86 per cent of the entire Hunter Valley generating capacity.

Planning authorities in the US are also swamped with plans for wind and solar thermal power. More than 97,000MW of solar thermal projects are seeking approval from the US Bureau of Land Management. In the south-west of the country, the bureau is doing a study that would speed up development of more than 100,000MW of right-of-way sites (degraded government lands) for solar thermal plants. There go another 38 Bayswater equivalents. An underdeveloped grid is the main obstacle to the expansion of wind power in the US, but President Barack Obama has announced a huge modernisation plan.


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