Australia’s solar industry is clouded in confusion, amid vague and ever-changing government policies and insufficient funds for large-scale solar projects, industry leaders say.
In May, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd unveiled the $1.5 billion Solar Flagships program, for four solar thermal and solar photovoltaic installations totaling 1,000 megawatts in a single location, expected to be the largest of its kind in the world.
Now the industry is urging the government to rework the plan, saying that it was ill conceived, unworkable and underfunded, The Australian reports. A companion project that was to support smaller but still significant installations in the 10-80 megawatt range is also up in the air.
And last week attendees at a Solar Flagship conference in Brisbane were informed that the $135 million funding for the government’s Renewable Energy Demo Program may no longer be available and could be absorbed into the delayed Solar Flagships program. In June the government invited the solar industry to update their applications for REDP funding, saying that approved applications would be informed in September.
“It’s a mess,” said an unnamed solar industry source, according to The Australian. “The solar flagships is a mess, REDP is a mess. It’s not very helpful for the solar industry.”
John Grimes, head of the Australian and New Zealand Solar Energy Society, said the industry is disappointed with the government’s delays and lack of organization. He pointed out that new technologies developed with the help of government programs are now stalled because of funding problems.
Australia has also lost out on the opportunity to be a global leader in roof-top and small-scale solar photovoltaics, Grimes said. Although Australia has optimal climate for solar power and is a source of leading technological developments in the industry, it employs only about 1,000 in the industry and has yet to enter the manufacturing arena of solar power.
“We are now a consumer of those products from Germany and China,” Grimes said. “Solar thermal is our one remaining opportunity for industry leadership. It’s ours to capture or lose. Let’s see if we can learn from history and do better.”
In a speech at the Solar Flagship conference, Australian Resources Minister Martin Ferguson reiterated his rejection of feed-in tariffs. He pointed to Germany’s experience of spending $1 billion on feed-in tariffs for rooftop and other solar initiatives while accounting for less than 1 percent of the country’s energy needs.
Artur Zawadski, head of business development at Wizard Solar, maintains that feed-in tariffs are necessary for Australia’s large-scale solar projects, particularly because China will likely have feed-in tariffs in place before the end of this year. “If Australia does not go down a similar path, we’re at risk of losing technologies overseas,” Zawadski said. “If we are not strategically positioned, we will be a price-taker rather than price-maker.”
Australia surpasses the United States as the world’s biggest per capita carbon emitter. Coal-fired power stations, known for high carbon dioxide emissions, now generate about 80 percent of Australia’s electricity.