Carbon Cutters

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.

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

Cathy Alexander

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

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.

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14 comments

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

  1. Mark Duffett

    800,000 Australian roofs.

    0.1% of Australia’s electricity.

    Hmmm.

    Green ‘points to Germany to show what policy continuity can do for solar’. And what has solar done for Germany? 3% of their electricity.

    No doubt Green is brilliant at what he does, and the world is a better place for his work, which has come an enormous distance technically. But on present indications it’s hard to see it amounting to more than minor steps on the road to the required decarbonisation rate.

  2. Warren Joffe

    I applaud Green too. But let’s not get silly ideas about how we should have picked winners and tried to have Australia producing solar panels for export when we are much better off having the benefit of mass production in China.

    As for Denmark’s wind industry…. where does it get its electricity from when the wind isn’t blowing? From coal fired generators in Germany. And wind ain’t solar. Solar will, one hopes, be the main source of power in the long run. And then we will be resenting all the ugly windfarms with high maintenance costs and even more requirement for storage than solar.

    But more applause for his not getting into the “climate science” debates when he knows he isn’t qualified and doesn’t want to waste his time mastering the vast research literature. He can do that when he is retired like the medical worthies who say far more than they know on the subject, Paul Nurse, Gustav Nossal, Peter Doherty, David de Kretser all come to mind….

  3. dazza

    Great article. I can only assume the reason why the Howard government wasn’t interested in green power. Rest of the worlds solar power r&d personnel must’ve thanked him for listening to the coal miners and energy companies.
    I mean really, for a government to ignore solar power… in Australia… Come-on !

  4. Warren Joffe

    @ dazza

    I can remember Liberals, including at least one Liberal MP who was a scientist, being enthusiasts for solar power about 35 years ago. However Howard, pre-middle-class-welfare, may have listened to economists and MBAs who could do their discounting sums and knew the value of a dollar now as against a dollar in X years time. What would Australia have gained from enormous enthusiasm by government for solar (better than wind certainly) before the 80 per cent recent reductions in the price of solar panels thanks to Chinese mass production? I remember Craig Emerson (yes Julia’s Craig Emerson) pointing out on Q&A or some such program a few years ago that solar power was many times as costly as coal fired power….

  5. Cathy Alexander

    Warren that’s an interesting point that hadn’t occurred to me – that in waiting to have our solar PV boom til 2009-12 (and the growth is extraordinary and ongoing), we actually saved a lot of money.
    But on your prediction that solar will be “the main source of power in the long run”, are you thinking of domestic rooftop PV or solar farms? Because this BREE documents makes for sobering reading on the capacity of solar (although note the solar data is from 2009)
    http://www.bree.gov.au/documents/publications/energy-in-aust/energy-in-australia-2012.pdf

  6. 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].

  7. Gerard

    Put it this way – global warming puts an increased load on the grid because everyone turns on their air-cons, right? Now just say everyone with an air-con got solar panels! So it’s hot – chances are very good to excellent there’s enough sun to at least run their air-con therefore no added load on the grid from this source…

    Might be the case that home solar’s not quite as useless as all that?

    Somehow I has me doubts about some of the “ant-solar” numbers. I mean they’re very obviously concerned about “those poor little coal industry employees” (ho ho ho and a big pat of cow manure). But if solar is all that insignificant what have the PLCIEs got to worry about?

  8. Mark Duffett

    @Gerard “So it’s hot – chances are very good to excellent there’s enough sun to at least run their air-con”

    Actually, not as good as you might think. Peak summer electricity demand loads (which are principally driven by aircons) generally occur around 4:30 pm – just as photovoltaic output is beginning to plummet.

    PLCIEs aren’t worried about solar, for the reason you state – they’re much more concerned about gas and nuclear.

    While not being particularly ‘anti-solar’, my concern is not for PLCIEs – it’s for both a safe climate and bringing/keeping as many people out of energy poverty as possible.

  9. Warren Joffe

    @ Mark Duffett

    Are you saying that the angle of the sun to the earth is beginning to change very rapidly around 4.30pm? But does that matter much if the solar collector is kept facing the sun or at least moved enough to counter the first couple of hours adverse changes? Of course we are going to be relying on better cheaper battery and perhaps other storage technology so a top of the batteries from midday to 4 pm might be enough to keep the air-con going till 11 pm….

  10. 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.

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