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Mar 7, 2013

The Power Index: carbon cutters, Martin Green at #8

Australian solar pioneer Martin Green is the man behind the solar entrepreneurs of the world. His early research and 40-year teaching career has driven a generation of solar development and commercialisation. But he keeps his head down when it comes to the politics of climate policy.

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When Martin Green got hooked on solar power 40 years ago, it was mainly used to fuel spacecraft. Few were interested except for NASA, and it cost $50,000 (in 1974 dollars no less) to fit out a house with a glittering solar array.

As a PhD student, Green saw what most didn’t: the extraordinary potential of using the sun to generate electricity.

The technology was already quite mature, he thought back then. Solar could provide on-the-spot energy without fossil fuel imports (climate change was not such an issue). Millions of poor people could use it. It was 1974 and Green was sold.

“Solar energy just seemed like a sensible way of generating electricity,” Green told The Power Index. “It was something that always seemed feasible but way off in the future.”

Fast forward four decades and Green has done more than just about anyone else to put affordable solar panels on rooftops from Geelong to Guangzhou. This engineer set up — and still co-runs — a solar school which has trained more than 500 engineers (600 more are currently enrolled). You may not have heard of the University of NSW’s School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy, but it probably designed parts of your neighbour’s solar panels.

It’s one of the world’s top three solar institutes, producing the world’s most efficient silicon solar cell under lab conditions and offering the world’s first undergraduate degree in PV engineering. Graduates have fanned the globe.

The school made its mark when it began to train Asian —  particularly Chinese — students. Following troubled ex-poster boy Shi Zhengrong, graduates turned the industry from expensive, developed-world manufacturing to cheaper Asian manufacturing. This precipitated the sustained solar price drop which explains why Australia now has 800,000 solar roofs.

Green, who comes across as a sensible engineering type, doesn’t hold back. “In actuality, what happened was that our students were the ones that drove that growth from the technological aspect,” he said from his home near Sydney’s waterfront. “You could say that we were responsible for the change in the industry that allowed costs to get down to their current level.”

Shi — “the Sun King” — is an Australian citizen who set up Chinese solar manufacturer Suntech, which thrived on his cheap thin-film silicon, was floated on the New York stock exchange and sold 25 million panels. Shi became the richest person in mainland China. But the company hit fraud problems last year, clouding Shi’s legacy — on March 4 he was further demoted by the company, from chairman to director.

Other high-flying graduates include Eun-Chel Cho (vice president, Hyundai Heavy Industries), Dai Ximing (co-founder of JA Solar), Srinivasan Narayanan (chief technology officer at Trina Solar, Solar One), Wang Aihua (CTO, China Sunergy), Allen Guo (CTO, Jinko Solar) and Zhang Guangchun (vice president, Canadian Solar). This network is influential — and where one goes, others follow — Green’s colleague Stuart Wenham is Suntech CTO.

Climate veteran Greg Bourne says Green has a “real burning vision of what the future might be with PV … [he’s] a quiet unassuming man, but very very powerful in the sense of his influence”. Bourne reckons Green has the effect of “almost sprinkling magic dust around others”.

Andrew Blakers, a Green graduate and Australian National University researcher, describes him as “a pioneering figure” who “combines academic brilliance with energy and strategic skill … The UNSW group has educated a large number of people who have gone on to become leaders in PV worldwide.”

“He dreamed of Australia embracing solar as Denmark embraced wind, but ‘I couldn’t ever get someone to sign on to that concept’.”

So why is Green not a household name?

Industry analyst Rob Fowler reckons the school has never liked publicity. Green has largely kept out of the climate debate. When John Howard toned down solar policy and manufacturing and talent leaked overseas, Green was not a strident critic. He kept pretty quiet as governments botched solar policy, rewriting their rebates and feed-in-tariffs with eye-watering inconsistency (the “solar-coaster effect”).

Yet he’s a good communicator — he’s given around 200 public lectures and presented to prime ministers — and is clearly passionate. (When asked about his hobbies, he answers gravely: “Solar power.” He later admits to enjoying time with his grandchildren at the local surf club.)

He exercises his power in the confined space of training and research. “We’re concentrating on what we do best,” he said, adding the climate debate “can become very bitter”.

This raises the contentious issue of whether experts have a responsibility to engage in significant public debates, no matter how bruising (some climate advocates have received death threats). The climate sector has failed to convince many of the need to act. Are those in a position to comment, who choose not to, partly to blame? Some insiders defend those who keep quiet, saying experts are busy, not trained in PR and shouldn’t cop media vitriol. Others say experts have talked themselves blue in the face and the climate comms problem lies elsewhere; in messaging and a lack of psychological nous.

Green does comment on policy, when pressed. “I think we lost a bit of an opportunity to have a more dominant position within the industry,” he said. He dreamed of Australia embracing solar as Denmark embraced wind, but “I couldn’t ever get someone to sign on to that concept”. He points to Germany to show what policy continuity can do for solar.

UNSW PV has succeeded without much cash from domestic industry or philanthropists. It has funding deals with overseas companies, and half its students are Chinese. Its global heft insulates from the wild ride of the domestic industry.

Green is not slowing down. He just became the director of the government’s US-aligned Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics, headquartered at UNSW. He predicts solar will provide the cheapest electricity, global generation will triple this decade, and solar will begin to seriously impact emissions (for all the government largesse, solar generated just 0.1% of Australia’s electricity in 2010 — wind generated 17 times that amount).

Green reckons Australia may re-emerge as a manufacturer (for the assembly of panels out of overseas-made components), and the efficiency of converting light into electricity will improve. UNSW PV is trialling stacking different solar cells — one absorbs blue photons, another red — which could boost conversion from 15% to 40-50%. Watch out for more “organic”, GladWrap-like solar cells. And watch for pumped hydro or chemical batteries storing solar power for when the sun goes down.

After 40 years working in the same place, Green isn’t bored. “We were where it was all happening,” he said. “When you look backwards you can see that the impact you have had is quite major.”

Cathy Alexander —

Cathy Alexander

Freelance journalist and PhD candidate in politics at the University of Melbourne

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14 thoughts on “The Power Index: carbon cutters, Martin Green at #8

  1. Warren Joffe

    Thanks for the link. I’ve bookmarked it and hope to read it. I concede that my hopes for solar are not from my up to date rational well informed side but just putting together Australia’s plentiful sun, wishful thinking and belief that 200+ years of rapid technological progress which is still accelerating will ensure we have solar as an acceptably cheap source of power for much of what we need and want, including air conditioning on hot afternoons. Improved battery and other technology will be important too. However, let me also say how pleased I am to find a Crikey editor so open to arguments that the numerate and economically literate side of me regards as very important.

    The average politician of any party 35 years ago could blandly repeat the nonsense about interest rates being too high and bemoan the [name a sum that seemed vast then] which would have to be paid by the poor home owner before his mortgage was paid off in 30 years time. Of course it was the poor saver who was receiving a negative real return after inflation that they should have been worrying about. They still over simplify of course (and not just for propaganda: they often believe what they say) but that is more likely to be obsessing about debt even when it is cheap and used for sound investments. Their nonsense is different. So, good to find you ahead of the field. Indeed it doesn’t pay to invest too early as my portfolio of potential 10-bagger tech stocks and blue sky small miners remind me…..[and that’s the ones I think will come good].

  2. Mark Duffett

    Yes, a bit of a simplification, but that’s what I’m saying. See <a href="http://www.solarchoice.net.au/blog/home-energy-consumption-versus-solar-pv-generation/"here for the practical upshot. Yes, trackers do help, but <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_tracker"not that much; there's serious debate as to whether they’re worth it. Not to mention that those 800,000 rooftop installations aren’t going to move, a lot of sunk capital there already.

    Yes, storage remains the key – that, or reliable low-carbon baseload. You really need seriously industrial-scale facilities to run aircons off batteries.

  3. Warren Joffe

    My science is only good enough (with a bit of maths, statistics and logic) to be able to see possible weaknesses in most scientists’ excessive claims to ex cathedra authority and truth. (No exceptions. Published medical research is mostly proved wrong or very inadequate. Even physics has to confront the fact that a whole lot of physicists are now saying “there was no before the Big Bang: time began with it” is not to be accepted as the last word. As for climate science I have to say “what is it?”. Does research on tree rings give one authority to be as dogmatic (and absurd) as, say, Tim Flannery who is probably very good on ancient animals). However…..

    I wonder if pumping liquids up when there is spare capacity and letting gravity bring them down to turn turbines to generate electricity later isn’t a pretty good storage system. Large pipes with low friction should allow what is in effect hydro-electric power to be pretty efficiently generated. Do you have some stuff on that?

    I suppose one should feel grateful as electricity prices rise through mostly misguided government policies that we are rich enough for it not to matter and will perhaps get the flow-on unplanned benefits that we have got from inventiveness turned to the purposes of making war over hundreds if not thousands of years. Wind farms I suspect will, even if linked across a windy continent, never beat the blight-on-the-landscape downside with any worthwhile contribution to affordable and clean electricity. But solar, nuclear and battery technology show signs of moving fast and having a lot to contribute. This is the optimist’s way of looking at the dubious claims of those who the totally scientifically illiterate imagine to be authoritative “climate scientists” and those with AGW as the idol at the centre of their secular religion like Barry Jones and Phillip Adams. Their model hero may turn out to be Don Quixote rather than Winston Churchill but we will end up being able to cope with our inability to pay young women in the Third World to spend 10 of their fertile years getting an education and not bearing children (actually you’ld have to pay their fathers or extended families but even that is as likely as the next Pope recommending condoms for contraception).

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