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Sunday, 26 June 2011 20:05

Time for a solar power reality check


The Federal Government has been waxing lyrical about a new $923 million photovoltaic solar power plant soon to commence construction in Australia. The new solar farm at Moree near the NSW-QLD border will occupy 1200 hectares (12 square kilometres) with a capacity of 150MW, making it the largest in the world. In the scheme of power generation, is this plant of any significance?

The largest solar power plant currently operating in the world - Sarnia in Canada - occupies 950 acres (about 385 hectares) has 1.3 million solar panels and nominally has a capacity of 80MW. However, because the sun only shines bright and high for a few hours each day, Sarnia has a capacity factor of just 17%, meaning that its true average output is just 13.6MW.

The capacity factor of the Moree solar farm, which will have 650,000 panels, should be marginally higher than the Sarnia plant given its proximity to more sunshine and newer generation panels. Therefore given a capacity factor of 20% (a reasonably generous assumption) the average output of the Moree plant should be about 20% of 150MW, which is 30MW.

According to the documentation of the Moree project, the new plant due for completion in 2015, will provide enough power for 45,000 homes, a town the size of Darwin - leaving the question of base load power aside.

The state of Victoria has a twin coal fired power plant complex called Loy Yang A and Loy Yang B, which together have a capacity of about 3300MW and a capacity factor of more than 90% giving an average output of about 3000MW, which serves the needs of half the state - about 3 million people.

To get the same output from solar would require 100 similar plants to Moree covering about 1200 square kilometres - and there would still be a need for conventional power plants - gas, coal, nuclear - to provide base load power when the sun doesn't shine or wind doesn't blow - unless anyone seriously thinks batteries could do the job.

Moree alone will cost around $1 billion, so to get the necessary output to service a state of say 6 million people (like Victoria) about 200 solar plants like Moree would be required costing around $200 billion!

Assuming any state had that kind of money and the huge tracts of free suitably located land needed, can anyone imagine the amount of energy and resources required to produce the 130 million solar panels?

No? well let me inform you.


I have a hefty 3KW system comprised of 18 reasonably high quality panels on the roof of my home. Each panel is an intricate, large, heavy construction made of a variety of metals and silicon crystals. The amount of energy used in the manufacturing process to produce these panels and the wiring to connect them up is considerable.

If worries about carbon emissions is your thing, then be assured that it will take a long time for the panels on my roof to recoup the carbon that was emitted during their manufacture. Now extrapolate that out to 650,000 panels and tens of millions of panels.

If you're not worried about the carbon emissions, then if you think putting solar panels on roofs is the answer to the land problem think again.

The 3KW system on my roof has a capacity factor of 17% giving it a true output of about 0.5KW.

Therefore, in a country with say 10 million homes and 25 million people, even if every roof top was able to be covered with solar panels, all of them pointing in the right direction (not really possible), the maximum output would be 5000MW - not even a quarter of what would be required to service Australia. Photovoltaics is clearly not up to the task of replacing fossil fuels or nuclear.

By now some of you will be asking why I bothered to get solar panels for my home given all of the above. The answer is really quite simple - in Australia right now it makes financial sense.

I paid $10,800 for my 3KW system thanks to exceedingly generous government subsidies funded by us taxpayers. In addition, my electricity retailer pays me 66 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity generated above what I use during the day, which is well over double the peak period tariff for what I use. Once again this is funded by us taxpayers. The result is my electricity bill is greatly reduced and in some months will be zero and I may even get paid by my retailer.

I realise of course that not everyone can afford to spend $10,800 or even $3000 for a smaller solar system and that these people are subsidising my discounted purchase and premium solar feed-in tariff through their taxes and I'm sorry.

However, don't blame me because I wouldn't have bought a personal solar electricity generating plant for my family if our Government had not been so generous with your money.



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Stan Beer


Stan Beer co-founded iTWire in 2005. With 30 plus years of experience working in IT and Australian technology media, Beer has published articles in most of the IT publications that have mattered, including the AFR, The Australian, SMH, The Age, as well as a multitude of trade publications.



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