Solar and Beyond: Renewable Energy in Times of Crisis

Modis Posted 16 June 2022

Solar power has been around a long time – the first modern commercial solar cells were developed right here in Australia over 30 years ago. But since then, solar has grown to account for only 1-3% of the world’s energy generation, even as the climate crisis has worsened. As a proud sponsor of Energy Week earlier this month, we at Modis decided to take a look at the future of solar – and the other ways in which technology can help ease the crisis.

It’s no secret that Australia is well-placed for solar generation, but we were a bit of a laggard in solar adoption until recent years, being outshone by countries with less suitable climatic conditions like Germany. But thanks to concerted action from campaigners, energy companies, public-sector bodies, and the public themselves, Australia overtook Germany in 2019 as the developed country that generates the highest percentage of its power from solar, with almost 10%. More than 30% of Australian households now have a rooftop solar photovoltaic (PV) cell, with a combined capacity of around 11GW.

Unlocking Solar’s Potential

Solar PV cells traditionally use silver, which has the key benefit of being highly conductive – but is also rare and expensive. With solar manufacturing accounting for an estimated 20% of global industrial silver consumption annually and solar demand set to grow five-fold over the next 10 years, alternatives are needed (especially as the industry shifts to more efficient cell structures that require more silver per cell).

One great prospect is the SunDrive project in NSW. With the help of funding from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), SunDrive have been developing a proprietary copper electrochemical process that means the silver used in manufacturing PV cells can be replaced with cheaper, more readily available copper. Last year, SunDrive were successful in fabricating such a solar cell – and it was the most efficient commercial-size solar cell ever built!

Beyond Solar

So, there are clear grounds for optimism on the solar front – but solar alone can’t be the way out of the climate crisis. That’s why we were excited to hear the recent news that work has begun on the Macintyre Wind Farm project in Queensland, a $2 billion collaboration between the QLD government’s low-emissions generator CleanCo and Acciona Energy Australia. Celebrating the start of work on the project, QLD Energy Minister Nick de Brenni said “the precinct will be one of the largest wind farms in the southern hemisphere and is a signal to global investors that Queensland is ready to support low emissions, job creating industry, onshore”.

Australia’s presence at the World Hydrogen Summit in Rotterdam in May was a statement of intent with regard to the Commonwealth’s position in this key market. Australia’s stand was one of the largest at the event, with national and state trade officials joining executives from energy companies like Woodside, Origin Energy, and Global Energy Ventures and tech companies including Hysata and Star Scientific to explore supply lines for renewable hydrogen energy.

With energy security a major issue in Europe right now, the Port of Rotterdam is seeking to establish itself as the continent’s foremost hydrogen import hub. The WA government signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Port of Rotterdam to investigate the potential for full supply chains between the two, from production to usage. Commenting on the Australian presence at the summit, Australian Hydrogen Council CEO Fiona Simon stated that “we are going to be a major hydrogen superpower in our own region” – a view shared by Dutch ambassador to Australia Marion Derckx, who said that the WA-Rotterdam MoU “reaffirms their [WA’s] status as a major global energy provider… This cooperation will deepen and expand the extensive business ties between Dutch and Western Australian companies”.

Digital Sustainability

This is all great news, but energy supply is only one side of this equation – the other is consumption. This is where the concept of digital sustainability comes into play. Digital sustainability is the use of tech in business applications to improve climate-related outcomes, and it has a dual role in tackling the climate crisis. The first is as an enabler, for example through the use of Internet of Things sensors in smart buildings, production lines, and electricity grids alongside artificial intelligence-based analytics to generate actionable insights. The second is through reducing the climate impact of technology itself: Professor Pan Shan, director of UNSW’s Digital Sustainability Knowledge Hub, offers the greening of energy-hungry data centres as an example, saying “when we think about digital sustainability, we need to look at how we can build and develop sustainable technologies and applications which… reduce consumption of energy and decrease potential emissions. That’s where low emission products, green computing and green data centres come in”.

Seeds of Hope

We understand that the scale of the climate crisis can seem overwhelming, especially in the context of global security tensions and a public health crisis. But with stakeholders working together across the industry to find ways to reduce carbon footprints and energy usage via technology, we’re hopeful that the worst forecast outcomes can be avoided – and we’re pleased to see Australian organisations leading the way globally.

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