Is Solar Power the Answer?

I wrote a couple of days ago about what I see as the fatuity of investing public money in wind turbines to provide energy for the national grid. A reference in that piece to solar energy caused a small flurry of emails from those who have a similar feeling about solar power. So today I’ll try and set the record straight about solar power, too.

In the 1980s I was a member, and then Chairman, of the Australian Research Grants Committee, and was asked then to set up and chair the new Australian Research Council. I was at the same time a member of the Australian Science and Technology Council, reporting to the Prime Minister. This was a period when the shift occurred from the notion that public funding should only go to so-called ‘pure research’ (that which the researcher wanted to do, because it was interesting and might lead to new knowledge), to the notion that whatever we funded had to in some sense benefit the Australian taxpayer who was, after all, providing the money.

The shift didn’t occur overnight. It had been coming for some time, and I first encountered it when I went to see the Secretary of the Department of Finance about why the ARGC was not getting any more money. His reply was that we oughtn’t to be getting any at all. What did we have to show for the money we had already received since the inception of the ARGC in 1964? That was a hard question to answer. I gave him the traditional sermon about how pure research led to applied, and then to new products and processes. He asked for examples of where ARGC support had done just that. Examples were hard to produce. This was a sobering experience. We didn’t lose any money, just then, but I could see the writing on the wall.

Along with the other members of ASTEC I was also dealing with issue after issue, prompted sometimes by the PM and sometimes on our own initiative, that involved spending public money on this or that possibility to capture a new technology, or improve this or that aspect of the Australian economy. On the whole we were sceptical. Australia didn’t have the industrial base to allow us make great advances in technology. We were good at invention (the ‘R’ of R&D) but not so good at the ‘D’. And at the third stage, the ‘C’ of commercialisation, we were left for dead by the USA, Japan, and Europe. I learned that for every dollar spent on the R, we would need to spend $10 on the D, and $100 on the C.

What should be done about all this? We should, it seemed, look to the future and see where Australia’s real advantages lay. In time I was sitting on the Prime Industries and Energy Council and also a regular observer at the Industrial Research and Development Board, and in these groups the same questions kept coming up. The general feeling was that we had to find a new approach to R&D, and it would inolve setting priorities of some kind, not for all spending but at least for new spending.

ASTEC set out the case in two major reports, Setting Directions for Australian Research (1990) and Research and Technology: Future Directions (1991). To some  degree those reports prefigured what has happened since. There is now a much more explicit agenda in R&D, and relevant agencies that spend money are expected to set priorities and, to a degree, ensure that their priorities are in harmony with those of the Commonwealth Government.

Though I was one who, in the 1980s, thought that we had to do something to provide more money for research — and there is now vastly more R&D money than there was then — I cannot say that I am delighted with the result. I no longer have my papers from thirty years ago, but I do remember arguing within the ARGC, after my unhappy experience in Finance, that we had to support excellent research that was unarguably in Australia’s interest, and offered solar energy as an example.

We were then supporting an excellent group at UNSW, and there was another at the ANU, separately funded. Again, my memory is that the efficiency of solar energy collection in the early 1980s was about seven per cent. Twenty years later it was at about 50 per cent, and some of that gain came from strong financial support from the ARGC and ARC. We had moved from hot water to electricity generation.

What has happened with ‘priorities’ in R&D is that they have become political. Almost everything in government can become political. The environmental movement captured solar and wind energy and advocated subsidising them (not the R&D, but the products) on the ground that the world was facing its final crisis, some kind of Thermageddon. In the old days ASTEC would have been asked to write a report on a subject like that, or at least to provide a briefing to the PM. But ASTEC is no more, and has been replaced by the office of the Chief Scientist. ASTEC was set up as an independent body able to provide independent advice. I don’t think the same is true of its replacement.

I object to having to pay more for electricity that is produced inefficiently and erratically because some people are worried about the end of the world. In the 1980s, solar energy looked a possible way in the future of protecting our small and diminishing reserves of oil — because even then there were experts telling us that ‘Peak Oil’ had already arrived. It would never have occurred to me that we would be considering it as a source of baseline power. How would we store overnight the energy gained during  the day? No one had the answer then, and no one has produced an efficient working model of the answer today. For isolated settlements and properties? Yes. For the grid? No.

I would not say that ‘priorities’ have had their day, but I think it is time to look back at what has happened, and consider whether or not we might have overdone their use in R&D.





Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • Peter Lang says:


    Excellent article. I
    was involved in all this, and in giving the money out to the projects at UNSW and
    ANU, back in the earlu 1990s. All you
    say is very familiar to me. But I am
    much wiser now.

    Solar power is an enormous waste of money. IMO it
    will not be viable, at large scale, in the foreseeable future, and probably

    Advocacy of solar is irrational. People who advocate solar do not understand
    the costs of it, nor the material requirements.
    It is not viable at the scale required, and not sustainable (because of
    the resource requirements, which are about an order of magnitude more than for
    nuclear for the same electricity output).

    Solar and wind need back up generation of energy storage to
    allow them to provide a reliable electricity supply and to provide power to
    meet the varying demand. Solar thermal
    can provide storage, but it is enormously expensive. The world’s newest and largest solar thermal
    power station is now under construction in California. It will have 6 hours of storage. The cost is $19/W average power supplied (and
    that does not include unplanned outages, for whatever reason), c.f. about $4 – $5
    for nuclear in USA,
    much less in Asia.

    You need to include the cost of transmission; say about $1,500/

    You need to estimate the cost of the total electricity generation
    and transmission system. If you do this,
    you’ll find the following:

    “Researchers at the Centre for Energy and
    Environmental Markets (CEEM), University of NSW, did a desk study and presented
    a paper “Simulations of Scenarios with 100% Renewable Electricity in the
    Australian National Electricity Market” (Elliston et al., 2011a) (hereafter

    The authors claim their study demonstrates that renewable
    energy could supply 100% of the Australian National Electricity Market’s (NEM)
    electricity and meet the demand with acceptable reliability. However, they did not estimate the costs of
    the system they simulated.

    Lang critiqued this here:
    and found:

    “For the EDM-2011baseline simulation, and
    using costs derived from the Federal Department of Resources, Energy and
    Tourism (DRET, 2011b), the costs are estimated to be: $568 billion capital
    cost, $336/MWh cost of electricity and $290/tonne CO2 abatement cost.

    That is, the wholesale cost of electricity for the simulated
    system would be seven times more than now, with an abatement cost that is 13
    times the starting price of the Australian carbon tax and 30 times the European
    carbon price. This cost of electricity does
    not include the costs for the existing electricity network.

    Although it ignores costings, the study is a useful
    contribution. It demonstrates that, even
    with highly optimistic assumptions, renewable energy cannot realistically
    provide 100% of Australia’s
    electricity generation. Their scenario
    does not have sufficient capacity to meet peak winter demand, has no capacity
    reserve and is dependent on a technology – ‘gas turbines running on biofuels’ –
    that exist only at small scale and at high cost.”

    A mostly nuclear scenario is compared with the mostly renewable
    energy scenarios here: See figure 6 which compares the five
    scenarios on the basis of total capital costs, cost of electricity (wholesale),
    and CO2 abatement cost.

  • Mike O'Ceirin says:

    Don and Peter probably a simple question which you could answer for me. I
    often see this “Twenty years later it was at about 50 per cent” when
    discussing solar power. My problem is that I lack the knowledge to know what
    100% is. So if I take a square metre at the equator what is the kW you can get
    at 100%? Since the Sun will not shine on the square metre at the same intensity
    all day what would the kWh you could get in a day at 100% efficiency at the
    equator? In the MSM the figures are all over the place and solar is typically
    rated in the number of the mythical standard household, this drives me spare.
    My thought is that solar is a very low density power source and in Canberra much
    below a reading at the equator and certainly no where near the 6 kW once saw
    quoted for Spain.

    • donaitkin says:


      Those comparisons were about efficiency of conversion, and were related to one another: however that efficiency was measured in, say 1980, the result was (from memory, 7 or 8 per cent), and in 2000 it was 49.86 per cent, or whatever. What you say I do not disagree with, and I mentioned that I no longer have any of the papers of that time. Some just went into the wpb as I moved from job to job, and others are in my collected papers in the NLA.

  • whyisitso says:

    I see under the Comments section on the right side of the page, that Don Aitken has responded to Mike’s comment here, but I canot read his response. Is there something wrong with this website?

  • Mike O'Ceirin says:

    Sumner I have the same problem, I can’t read it either.

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