Australia is in a privileged position to take advantage of solar power: as a continent, it has the highest average solar radiation per square metre in the world. Although there are sunnier locations like the Atacama Desert in other continents, when you count the total sunlight reaching the entire landmass, Australia is the undisputed winner.
Solar Radiation in Australia
According to Geoscience Australia, the national scientific authority on geography and geology, the country gets enough solar radiation to meet its energy demand 10,000 times. In other words, you could meet Australia’s total electricity demand by covering only 0.01% of its surface area with solar panels. With a surface area of 7.692 million km2, this percentage represents around 769 km2 of solar panels. Since you can fit around 150 MW of solar power capacity in one square kilometer, the resulting array would have an installed capacity above 115 gigawatts.
Of course this is only a thought experiment to visualize the scale involved. In real-world applications, it is a much better idea to distribute solar panels throughout residential and commercial rooftops. A centralised solar array to serve all Australia would require a massive investment in power grid infrastructure, and consider that network costs represent more than half of your power bill. Whereas distributed rooftop generation creates the power at the point of consumption, cutting out all parts of the electricity supply chain.
Solar radiation statistics for Australia are quite impressive. The sunniest parts of the country, which are located to the center and northwest, get an average solar radiation above 6.4 kWh/m2 per day. This goes even higher in the summer, potentially above 9 kWh/m2 in the sunniest spots of the country.
The Future of Solar Technology
Australia currently has some of the highest power bills in the world, but at the same time solar power is becoming one of the cheapest generation technologies. Since network costs represent more than half of the kilowatt-hour price, distributed solar could be the solution for Australian homes and businesses to have affordable electricity.
The main challenge lies in making solar energy available during nighttime. Despite the massive scale of Australia’s solar resources, they cannot be tapped at night. Therefore, it is necessary to deploy energy storage. It is still an expensive technology, but this could change in the near future.
- Lithium batteries such as the Tesla Powerwall are promising in the residential sector. Electricity from the power network is becoming more expensive as storage drops in price, so it is only a matter of time before solar power with storage emerges as the best energy solution for Australians.
- Solar farms can deploy large-scale battery arrays, but they can also use a pumped hydro power plant if site conditions are favorable. Solar farms can be oversized so that surplus energy is used to pump water into the reservoir during the day, and then used to drive a turbine at night.
State governments in Australia are realising the potential of solar power and are establishing renewable energy targets. Victoria has taken the lead as the first state that backs up their renewable energy target with legislation – 40% by 2025.