13 February 2014

LARGE-SCALE SOLAR ENERGY IN A TEMPORARY PICKLE

The solar boon afforded by Australia’s thousands of hours of sunshine every year is a precious gift that is currently being squandered. This is the opinion of energy experts who maintain that unless more adequate infrastructure is developed, the sun drenched nation could consistently fail to efficiently harness what is a huge source of energy.

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Whilst there are countless suburbs across Australia boasting plenty of efficient residential solar panels, these installations are primarily to save consumers money on future energy bills as opposed to propping up the national grid. What’s more, they are causing large surges in supply during the day followed by dips of supply at night. With the grid needing a steady smooth supply across a 24-hour period, this is far from an ideal situation. As some readers will be aware, the solution to this problem is improved battery technology allowing much greater storage of produced energy. This technological step will allow energy to supplied in a constant stream, so… when’s that happening, then?

The current situation has seen energy companies limiting the size of large solar installations as there are already large daily surpluses in some areas. For example in Western Australia installations above 30 KW/Hr are on a permanent hold right now. Without a move forward in battery technology and installation solar is essentially throttled at current levels.

Whilst incentives for the installation of solar exist for people’s homes, battery installation will need to be on a much larger scale and there’s not much incentive for households to contribute to that. The only reliable way to construct large cost efficient energy storage is through large grid investment and that won’t happen until energy storage is workable in the first place. Again, no timeframe on that has been presented to us. Why not?

Whilst solar panels are ever decreasing in cost and increasing in efficiency, battery technology is simply not keeping the same pace. No doubt because we’ve been using batteries for a long time and have already pushed the envelope pretty far on that front. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The global surge in solar and wind power has brought the issue of energy storage right to the top of the scientific agenda and there have already been some impressive rumblings amidst research institutions the world over. A particularly vivid example are improved lithium batteries that utilise the structure of benign viruses to create more efficient energy storage for electric cars, part biological batteries!

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Regardless of what eventual technology takes over from the current generation of batteries we need to push for this transition to occur as soon as possible.