Australia can be a clean energy superpower

A guest post by Stewart Taggart

Not only Australia's but the entire world's energy demand could be met by solar fields in Australia's interior

Imagine a world in which Australia becomes a ‘clean energy superpower’ exporting huge volumes of clean, green, zero-greenhouse gas electricity to Asia, powering homes, industry and electric vehicles.

It requires vision. It requires will and leadership. But it’s not that farfetched. If we’re willing to dream a little

TREC/DESERTEC-Australia outlines how Australia can be become a clean energy superpower in: “For a Solar/Geothermal Australian Economy By 2050.”

Australia HAS the resources and the technology meet Asia’s energy needs. The resources (sun, wind and heat) are ‘free.’ The technologies are solar photovoltaics, solar thermal, geothermal and wind among others. Each day enough sunshine falls on interior Australia to power not just Australia, but the entire world. And that’s just the solar resource.

Given rising energy needs, mankind needs to build out more electricity generating capacity in the next 40 years than has ever been built before. How well this challenge is met will determine what civilization is like after 2050. To meet it, Australia should build up an energy export industry based upon its comparative advantages: sun, geothermal and wind.

These exist in huge quantities in Australia’s Outback. To take advantage of these natural gifts, the nation’s electricity generating industry needs to be reoriented away from dirty coastal coal-fired power plants and toward these new energy sources.

A roadmap how this might be done is laid out in “For a Solar/Geothermal Australian Economy By 2050”  produced by TREC/DESERTEC-Australia, an organization dedicated to developing Australia’s massive clean energy resources.

Australia now faces an unprecedented opportunity to truly and lastingly take a significant role in world events by developing its massive clean energy resources for the good of mankind — and get rich doing it.

With aging coal-fired power plants needing replacement, solar technologies dropping rapidly in price and everyone’s minds now concentrated on energy due to high oil prices, there’s never been a better time to make a break from the past.

TREC/DESERTEC’s roadmap shows one way how.

By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

16 replies on “Australia can be a clean energy superpower”

I heard about solar Sliver technology quite a while back now, and
figured that would be cheap enough and good enough for me (and
probably many others), and every 6 months or so I check the
Origin Energy website wanting to see when it is happening. Here
is what I see today:

“2008 is shaping up as a challenging and hopefully rewarding year as we look towards the next step in building the SLIVER business, that of entering the manufacturing phase.”

Now … is “challenging” just code for ‘damn this stuff is hard to
scale up’?

My roof is ready, but it won’t wait until 2050!


One barrier to renewable technologies is that the transmission infrastructure for coal fired power is already there, while someone needs to pay for the transmission infrastructure to regions where the best renewable resources are. A big part of the TREC stuff is high voltage DC lines (which have low transmission losses) to regions where the best renewable resources are. Chapter 17 of the Garnaut Review Draft Report (network infrastructure market failures) is also worth reading.


My biggest concern over various geothermal solar etc proposals , some of which fully costed such as US solar plan for 74% of all enegy supplied by 2050 at 450 billion , is how much oif this data is getting actualy to PennyWong and her key advisors Big Oiland coal get direct access to ‘lobby’ there dirty enegy alternative and unproven ‘clean’ coal capture , but what of R E 9other than via Green Paper submisssions that may be viewsed at lower beeaucratic levels , and potentially discarded


1) Yes! Please!
This is a topic in which Oz and California+US Southwest have a lot of similarities [sun, dry, high energy use during day], and for which much of long-term energy supplies need to be solar, whether PV or thermal. Different: you have lots of coal, we (in CA) have little or none, and use only a little electricity from outside coal plants. We use a lot of gas, of course, and that will have to go. We’d rather lessen its use early than late.

2) In CA, it looks like it will sort out as follows, in the long-term:

#1 pervasive energy efficiency
See ARt Rosenfeld, CA Energy Commissioner and one of the all-time greats.

(existing hydro, albeit pressured from AGW; geothermal; wind; we have a little nuclear; by state law, no more can be built unless disposal arrangements get real).

PV on homes and buildings:

Nanosolar and other thin-film things for low cost where not area-intensive,

Sunpower&similar high-efficiency where area-constrained.

Silicon Valley office buildings are starting to sprout PV panels in force, with Google’s efforts well-known, but others as well. It’s still a little early for the charging infrastructure, but efforts are firing up, like Coulomb Technologies, but people are keenly awaiting production-grade BEV and PHEV.

Big PV and CSP farms in the deserts.

For example, Pacific gas & Electric is the big utility in Northern California. It’s CEO is a very sharp guy named Peter Darbee, an articulate speaker, and passionate about Efficiency.

PG&E recently announced deals to buy substantial solar power.

California has rules that incent utilities to make money by efficiency, not by just generating more MW.

Darbee says (paraphrased):

when they do that, it unleashes creativity at the utilities [which is why PG&E does energy audits, gives incentives for energy-savings, has given away CFLs, etc, etc.]

But don’t expect anything to change in other states unless the rules change. Also, it takes a while, since utilities can be pretty conservative. He said replacing 28 of 35 senior executives helped :-)

Long-term, OZ is one of the lucky areas in the world that ought to be able to straightforwardly generate enough power for a first-world standard of living after fossil fuels become irrelevant.

I am curious though, is there a good summary of the utilities rules around OZ? Because, get them right, and good things happen.


I think the glass coated with organic dye with the solar cells around the edges of the glass are the cheapest way to go! Apart from huge collecting area with little silicon, the PV cells can be out the direct sun and so stay cooler than the conventional rooftop solar PV installation.

The sliver cell sounds good too


Well if you think you can all make a profit putting solar panels in the desert go to it. No-ones stopping you. But it sure sounds like some sort of Cargo Cult to me. [Inappropriate insinuations deleted].


To have inefficient solar/wind generators 1000 klms from the consumer with poor energy storage seems crazy for the following reasons:
1/ Solar generates power from about 9am to 4pm when it’s generally not required.
2/ Big energy loss on transmission distance to go with that original low level efficiency.
3/ Inefficient, expensive storage of energy.
4/ Dust on reflectors/panels increases inefficiency sometimes to the point of almost nonfunctionality.
5/ Full fossil fuel standby always required.
6/ True cost not disclosed but probably many multiples of current power cost.


Spangled Drongo.


1) most business and much industrial power is required from 9am to 5pm. And in summer most power for domestic cooling is required between these times.
2) energy losses can be minimised by altering the voltage of transmission, or less easily but still possible by transitting DC. Energy losses can also be minimised by placing power sources closer to the users.
3) the technologies for storing renewably-sourced energy are almost certainly much cheaper to develop than are the technologies that might store some fossil fuel-derived CO2 for an unknown and perhaps insignificant period of time. Similarly they are almost certainly cheaper than the cost to safely decommission and store the waste from nuclear fuel generating equivalent energy outputs.
4) the cost of mining, transporting, processing, decommissioning and safely storing the waste from nuclear fuel (if these externailties are actually factored) increases its inefficiency too, and sometimes to the point of non-functionality.
5) if renewable technologies were permited to develop without prejudice, fossil fuel standby will not always be required
6) the true cost of nuclear, and of fossil fuels where their distal impacts are actually factored, are not disclosed but are probably many multiples of current power cost.



= “transmitting”…

And it was “externalities”, of course, although that one was obvious.


I agree with Bernard J.’s responses.

Just a few more points:

Funded largely by private-sector venture capital (rather than government handouts — ie your tax money — like coal) concentrating solar power is falling in price VERY rapidly. With deployments now occurring in Spain and California (3,000+MW under permitting) and thousands more to come, the ‘learning curve’ in CSP is accelerating to where the price ‘crossover’ of concentrating solar power and fossil fuel could occur as early as 2012.

Given the long lead times involved in planning new energy generation capacity, that means it’s now CHEAPER to build solar (viewed over the long term) than fossil fuel power plants. Stated conversely, building fossil fuel power plants will soon be a money loser for 35 of their estimated 40-year lifespans.

Regarding costs, our fossil fuel friends usually omit the environmental degradation, greenhouse gas emissions and expensive infrastructure needed to dig up, process and transport fossil fuels to the power plant. Carbon capture won’t change that.

With solar, all this is eliminated. Further, the carbon capture guys are still not even on the starting block in demonstrating this unproven, uncosted technology. “Coal 21,” the Australian coal industry mouthpiece, says CCS won’t be ready in Australia until 2015 — three years after it’s priced out of the market. This, after hundreds of millions of tax money ($20 per Australian under the Howard government’s “Low Emission Technology Demonstration Fund”) given to the coal in ‘research’ subsidies. This money would have been MUCH better spent on ‘proven’ technologies, like solar.

Finally, high-voltage direct current power lines are becoming cheaper and more capacious all the time. At the extreme, this holds out the potential of interlinking (down the track) international electricity grids to create economies and efficiencies in cross-border generation and transmission of power similar to the efficiencies the Internet brought to information. Further in


Hmmm. And I thought I had a penchant for big engineering projects!

I buy the idea of domestic energy supplied from solar combined with TES, though I remain to be convinced that it won’t be substantially dearer than a grid made up largely of baseload nuclear (which is a topic I’d love to see Professor Brook comment on at some point). Furthermore, I find the argument that we should just wish away our present grid infrastructure unconvincing. We have what we have, and we should be looking for lowest-cost solutions that take this into account, rather than ignoring the best part of a century’s worth of infrastructure.

As for drops in costs, we’ll see. I hope Stewart is right, and solar power drops to below fossil fuel costs within the next few years, in which case decarbonizing our electricity sector costs us very little beyond the costs of shutting down infrastructure before the end of its useful life.

But an intercontinental transmission line from Australia to China? Aside from financing issues – and there’s only limited scope for splitting it up into more digestible chunks – there would have to be very substantial reliability and security concerns. A lot of greens like to bang on about the risks of centralized energy grids, something I think is essentially propaganda. However, in this case, you could black out China in an instant by cutting, if not one, a relatively few undersea cables, or failures at key interconnection points. Not to mention political decisions by Australia, Indonesia, or any other country along the way. The leverage control of those cables offer would make the power Russia is currently exerting with its influence on European gas supplies look soft.

Furthermore, China has large areas of sparsely populated deserts of its own. While the solar insolation levels are not as high as Australia, they’re quite reasonable (AFAIK, most of China’s pollution gets blown east, not west). The higher insolation is compensated for by the much lower construction costs in China (cheap labor still matters), not to mention avoiding the need to spend $500 billion in one hit on transmission cables. Not to mention less risk of single point failures out of their control.

Anyway, my 2c. Not knocking the concept entirely, particularly domestically, but some issues that would best be addressed if this kind of thing is to be taken seriously.


I completely agree on all your points. My aim is to get us thinking about this. Intriguingly, I’ve done some preliminary research and it looks as is long distance HVDC power lines cost little more than natural gas pipelines. These are also ‘big engineering projects,’ so are big oil wells, so are huge coal loading facilities, so are big coal mines, so are big coal-carrying railroad systems.
Yes, there would be failure points with huge HVDC power lines. But there are also big failure points in the existing system. One of them is called the “Strait of Hormuz” which much of the middle east’s oil passes through. Another is the Strait of Malacca where much of Asia’s Middle Eastern oil transits. My point is that it’s not like the existing system is all that secure.
About throwing away existing infrastructure, much of the existing infrastrure (at least the power system) is completely threadbare and needs an overhaul anyway. Now’s the ideal time to think big, instead of sprucing up a geriatric system built for an earlier century.


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