On May 17, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced a new "solar flagships" initiative. The government will invest $1.4 billion in four solar electric generating systems, which will have a combined output of 1000 megawatts. Rudd claims it will be the world's biggest solar energy project.
This is fantastic news, apart from one minor problem: 1000MW is about five percent of the scale of the "solar flagship" needed to prevent runaway climate change.
Mark Diesendorf from the University of NSW told ABC Radio National on May 13: "The kind of resources that are being pushed towards renewable energy here are the resources that you only give if you want to keep it in a state of demonstration, of one-off demonstration projects, and what renewable energy really needs now, and is ready for now, is incentives to expand the market on an on-going basis to build
commercial solar power stations, large scale commercial wind farms and then we would really be thriving with a clean energy future."
As for the claim that this will be the biggest such project in the world, Australia will remain well behind solar thermal programs in Spain and California.
The Spanish Ministry of Industry, Tourism and Trade claims that "by year end, Spain will have 233 MW [of thermoelectric solar energy capacity] installed and 730 MW in 2010", said a May 11 Renewable Energy article.
Australia's single gigawatt of thermoelectric solar generation, on the other hand, is not slated for completion until around 2017. Spain will be streets ahead.
Three days before the Rudd government announced its solar energy project, RenewableEnergyWorld.com reported that Californian-based Pacific Gas and Electric company (PG&E)had signed contracts to build 1310MW of solar thermal generators.
Clearly no one in the ALP reads that website, or they might have told climate change minister Penny Wong, environment minister Peter Garrett and Rudd to at least match the PG&E portfolio if they wanted to claim "world's biggest" solar status.
Nuts and bolts
How does solar thermal energy work? To make a reasonably accurate assessment of whether solar thermal is a realistic way to produce large amounts of electricity it is important to have at least a basic understanding of how the technology works.
Current solar thermal generating plants consist of a field of 100-200 metre mirrors that reflect solar radiation and focus it on water pipes. The heated water is pumped to a central power block where heat exchangers use the heat to produce steam to run traditional power turbines.
A new power plant in Spain, Andasol 2, is a major step forward for solar thermal because, until now, solar thermal power has only been available in daylight hours.
Andasol uses excess heat to warm up a giant molten vat of a common chemical salt. The salt is a type of fertiliser that is available cheaply in large quantities.
At night, the stored heat in the giant vat of molten salt (think of it as lava) is used to make steam and keep the turbines running.
Movement for real action
More and more people are realising that climate change is a very real and serious problem, but one with real solutions. They are also realising that the biggest barriers seperating the polluting present from a safe-climate, renewable-energy future are not technological but political.
On June 13, thousands of people around the country will rally for real action on climate change. Trade unions are becoming more involved in the movement as more workers become conscious of what they can do and how they can use their union to take action.
If the government wants to win over the climate movement it should upscale the "solar flagship" program with a view to building at least 20 gigawatts of plants over 10 years (instead of one gigawatt), and allocate a similar amount of resources to a wind energy program.
Until governments allocate resources to more ambitious renewable energy projects, the climate movement will continue to deepen its roots among an increasing section of the population.