Despina Giotis and Sophia Wilhelm-Demekas
Australia, as an island near the equator with vast diversity in landscape, is indisputably well-equipped for being hydro-, solar-, wind-, and even geothermally-powered. In solar energy alone, some of the world’s largest solar radiation levels (over 6.00 kWh/m2/day) are found in Northern Australia. (Campbell) As visible in the figure on the right, th
e entirety of Australia’s energy needs could be met from just one solar-powered station the size of a cattle farm. Despite this, Australia’s per capita emissions of CO2 in 2015 was 18.6 tons per person, higher than that of the US and China. (EDGAR) In order to understand the current state of renewable energy in Australia and why reducing carbon emissions has been such a complicated task, an understanding of its political and legislative history is essential.
In July of 2012, the Australian Labor Party implemented a new legislative motion to incentivize lower carbon emissions, naming it the “Carbon Pricing Mechanism”. The objective was to make people pay the price of the energy they’re using and make it cost effective for businesses to switch to renewable alternatives to carbon. Their strategy was to target organizations that emitted over 25,000 tons of emissions by making them pay an additional tax. This was significant because this group of organizations covered approximately 60% of Australia’s carbon emissions. The plan of action was methodical and made transparent to the public. For the first three years, the price of carbon pollution would be fixed – the first year at $23/ton, the second year at $24.15/ton and the third year at $25.45/ton. (Ross McLennan) After three years, the price would be determined by the international market. In addition, assisted industry and household changes were put in place to encourage industry to invest in cleaner technology and to support families that would inevitably be impacted by higher prices for household items. For example, scientists projected that the plan would result in families paying $9.90 more per week so the taxable threshold was raised from an income of $6,000 to one of $18,200 in order to incentivize people to get a part-time job. (Ross McLennan)
Although the mechanism was approved and passed, only a bit over a year later in September 2013, Australia had a Federal Election and the Australian Liberty Party was elected after promising to abolish the Carbon Pricing Mechanism. They accused it of being a poorly disguised “carbon tax”, which they claimed was unfair and hit the lower-income, working class the hardest. In its place, they introduced a new bill which they called the Emission Reductions Fund (ERF). Compared to the Carbon Pricing Mechanism, this bill was vague and unquantifiable – so much so that the media didn’t even report on it. The goal made in the bill was to “reduce carbon levels to 5% below 2000 levels by 2020” (Ross McLennan) which they aimed to do with a budget of $2.55 billion invested in the most cost-effective carbon abatement projects determined by auctions. As a result, it made it easy for people to take advantage of the fund by simply proposing projects they were already doing (controlled burning on their properties, for example) and collecting money they didn’t need.
Although the Carbon Pricing Mechanism clearly wasn’t a perfect solution considering the large-scale opposition it harbored, the bill currently in place is definitely no better. On the bright side, there is a general consensus among Australians that man-made carbon emissions are affecting the world climate, they simply disagree on how to act to change this. There is also a growing movement among small, independent businesses to switch over to renewable energy as opposed to using carbon or diesel as their main energy source.
Hidden Valley is a good example of this movement because it was the first resort in Australia to be run entirely off of sustainable energy. The northern location of Hidden Valley within the wet tropics makes the area conducive to solar power due to its proximity to the equator, but not conducive to wind power due to its distance from the coast. In December 2007, the McLennan’s, decided to install an 11.7 kW system consisting of 90 130 kW panels as can be seen in the photo. At the time of installation each panel was priced at $1,300, making the total cost $180,00; however, the government provided a 50% rebate at the time of installation, meaning the McLennan’s only paid $75,000 and the payback time was just two years. Additionally, Hidden Valley was able to prevent 624 tons of carbon/year from entering the atmosphere and was able to save $320,000/year by cutting diesel consumption from 26,000 L/year to approximately 100 L/year. The rate of efficiency of the solar panels at Hidden Valley is 17%, whereas the rate of efficiency of new solar panels has increased to about 23%. As mentioned the price of one of the solar panels that was installed into Hidden Valley was $1,300, whereas now a single solar panel costs about $200. Hidden Valley installed an oversized array in order to prevent having to install moving parts. Although solar panels with moving parts cost more initially, they have a 15% greater efficiency rate than stable solar panels. The solar panels at Hidden Valley are linked in a series of 10, meaning they all must capture their quota of energy in order to reach a certain threshold so that energy can be transferred to the batteries. The down side of this is that one shaded panel could hinder the whole series of ten and cause the threshold to not be met. New technology has prevented this issue by programming a micro inverter for each panel, which prevents one shaded panel from causing a collateral loss. Due to the remote location of Hidden Valley the solar system is stand alone, meaning it is not connected to the grid. The energy from the solar panels is used to charge a battery bank, which is backed up by a diesel generator. The battery bank, as can be seen in the photo, consists of 60 deep cycle lead acid batteries that charge during the day and discharge over large periods of time at night. The batteries only discharge about 20% of the stored energy and contain approximately 4 tons of lead. At the time of installation the batteries cost $60,000, but now they would cost around $40,000. New Tesla batteries are more expensive, but are able to discharge 80-90% of the stored energy. Unfortunately, the Tesla batteries are not compatible with the system in place at Hidden Valley, so old batteries will have to be replaced with the original type of batteries that were installed. Hidden Valley acts as an inspiration for all of Australia and the potential that solar power can provide.
Photo: Solar panels at Hidden Valley Cabins. Released with permission from Ross McLennan.
Photo: 60 batteries at Hidden Valley Cabins. Released with permission from Ross McLennan.
Campbell, Andrew, Andrew Blakers, and Stuart Blanch. “North Australia’s Electrifying Future: Powering Asia with Renewables.”RenewEconomy. 21 Aug. 2013. Web.
“CO2 Time Series 1990-2015 per Capita for World Countries.” EDGAR – GHG (CO2, CH4, N2O, F-gases) Emission Time Series 1990-2012 per Region/country – European Commission, 11 Nov. 2016. Web.
Ross McLennan. Hidden Valley Cabins. Interview.