Oceania | Economy | Environment | Oceania

Australia’s Mission to Become a Solar Powerhouse 

Sunshine alone, though, does not guarantee a successful solar industry — infrastructure and stable, smart politics are necessary. 

Joshua Mcdonald
Australia’s Mission to Become a Solar Powerhouse 
Credit: Unsplash

Over a century ago, Dorothea Mackellar was on holiday in London when she wrote an ode to her homeland, Australia. Titled “My Country,” the poem is famed for its second stanza, which begins: “I love a sunburnt country.” In an overcast London, she longed for Australia’s blue skies and bright sun. Ever since, Australian tourism advertisements have lured visitors to Australia’s shores with a promise of “the perfect sun-soaked holiday” or “year-round sun on a beach all to yourself.”

It’s great marketing, but it’s also true. Australia is the sunniest continent on earth. But Australia’s blue skies offer a lot more than just ideal holiday weather. In the last decade, Australia has emerged as a solar powerhouse and now, with some of the world’s largest solar farms being built across the country, it’s likely Australia will continue to be a global trailblazer on harnessing renewable energy. 

Driven by the falling costs of solar panels and high electricity prices, more than a quarter of all Australian households now have rooftop solar units. Due largely to shopping centers, hospitals and commercial buildings increasing their focus on sustainability, medium-scale solar power has also seen growth, having increased by more than 700 percent since 2015. In 2019, around 8 percent of Australia’s electricity was generated by solar power. The Australian Energy Market Operator expects this to rise to 25 percent by 2040.

Rooftop solar aside, large-scale solar farms are also popping up around the country. In central Australia, an ambitious plan to build the world’s largest solar farm with the capability of exporting to and powering 20 percent of Singapore is underway. South Australia, which already receives half of its electricity from renewables, has just signed off on three new solar plants, with a target of being 100 percent renewable by 2030. 

A recent report by the International Renewable Agency ranked Australia as one of the countries to benefit the most from a transition to a wholly renewable energy market. The report found that Australia has “economically demonstrated solar and wind energy resources estimated to be 75 percent greater than combined coal, gas and uranium resources.”

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Sunshine alone, though, does not guarantee a successful solar industry. Infrastructure and a stable policy environment are essential. Australia is already leading the world in the development of solar technology. Just last month, Australian researchers claimed first in a global race to develop cheaper, more flexible, and more efficient solar panels. 

But despite the proven economic and environmental benefits, solar is still often targeted by Australia’s fossil-fuel addicted federal government. Earlier this year, Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor announced that the government would stop funding solar and wind research. The current government is not the first to shy away from backing renewables. In the last decade alone, three Australian prime ministers have been sacked by their own party for trying to pass meaningful climate and energy policies. 

Dr. Richard Corkish, a senior lecturer at the School of Photovoltaics and Renewable Energy Engineering at the University of New South Wales, wrote in response to Taylor’s announcement that “with funding in question, a cloud looms over our sunny solar future.” 

“To turn away from a burgeoning industry that’s effectively driving down greenhouse gas emissions, creating jobs and revitalizing regional areas at a crucial juncture is not helpful to our role in the global renewables revolution,” he said. 

State and territory governments, however, are still on board. This week, Sydney and Adelaide officially made the switch to 100 percent renewable electricity. 

“We are in the middle of a climate emergency,” said Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore. “If we are to reduce emissions and grow the green power sector, all levels of government must urgently transition to renewable energy.”

Overall, renewable energy, including solar, windfarms, and hydrogen, is growing at a per capita rate 10 times faster in Australia than the world average. Even those with business interests in the fossil-fuel industry have admitted renewables are the way forward. 

Mining magnate Andrew Forrest, once Australia’s richest man, is one of the main financial backers of the large solar project slated to power Singapore from the Australian desert and is looking to replace gas generation with solar and battery storage at his iron ore mines in the Pilbara desert. 

Another Australian billionaire and also a financial backer of the Singapore project, Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes, has lambasted the federal government for having “no sensible policy on climate or energy” and urged private businesses to lead the way. 

“Faced with government inaction on some of our biggest problems, it’s the business community that can step up and drive meaningful change,” he said. 

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Cannon-Brookes and Macquarie Bank, as well as Origin Energy chair Kevin McCann, have also thrown their support behind plans to create 1 million green-friendly jobs in the wake of record unemployment due to COVID-19. 

“We can use this as an opportunity to electrify so much of our economy, in lots of different ways,” Cannon-Brookes told a launch event on Monday. “We can use it to build a better strategically positioned economy for the future.”