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Sun power

Solar power is derived from energy radiated from the sun as light and heat. The sun is the source of most forms of renewable energy. Electricity is generated from solar energy through two main renewable technologies – solar photovoltaic (PV) and solar thermal. Electricity generation from solar energy in Australia is currently almost entirely sourced from PV installations.

There is an increasing interest in solar thermal electricity, but the major application of solar thermal energy in Australia is for water heating.

Solar PV

How it works

Solar PV cells act as semi-conductors and turn solar energy into electricity by converting sunlight into a photon induced voltage, which drives a current through an external circuit and creates electricity.

Solar PV cells are commonly made up of a thin semi-conductor that is treated to create positive and negative (p-n) junctions. When sunlight hits the cell it creates an electrical potential and electricity flows if it is connected to an external circuit.

Solar PV cells are commonly made up of single crystal wafers, polycrystalline wafers or thin films of silicon. Other thin film technologies include thin copper indium diselenide/cadmium sulphide cells, cadmium telluride/cadmium sulphide cells and gallium arsenide cells.

Current research is focusing on organic PV cells, which use oxidation-reduction or photosynthetic-like processes, rather than semi-conductors.

Solar PV systems commonly consist of PV cells, which combine to make modules (a collection of cells), which can then be connected to make up a PV array.

Solar PV systems also commonly include a control panel to regulate the power from the array and an inverter to switch the current from direct current (DC) to alternating current (AC) so that it can be used in standard appliances within the home.

For the past 3 decades, PV power systems have been used with diesel generators as fuel savers and for low load operation, particularly in remote, off-grid systems or for commercial scale power generation. Small off-grid PV systems usually include storage systems, such as batteries or flywheels. In the last decade, PV has been increasingly used in grid-connected power systems.

Solar thermal

Solar thermal systems use the sun’s energy to provide heat for direct use or power generation. In the case of solar hot water systems, solar thermal technology is used to directly heat water. In larger applications, solar energy is captured, concentrated and other fluids and materials are used to feed steam generators for electricity production.

How it works

Solar hot water

Solar energy can be used effectively to heat water to reduce the amount of fossil fuel resources required. While it varies from state to state, a large proportion of Australia’s domestic energy consumption is hot water heating.

The Research Institute for Sustainable Energy (RISE) has said that approximately 25 per cent of domestic energy consumption is devoted to the heating of water to low temperatures, of less than 100°Celcius.

Solar hot water systems consist of a collector and a storage tank. In flat plate collectors, cold water is passed through the collector to be heated. In evacuated tube collectors a heat transfer fluid in the tubes heats water in the manifold at the top of the collector. The heated water then flows into the storage tank and the process is repeated by passing more water from the tank through the collector.

Large scale concentrating solar thermal technology

Solar thermal energy systems consist of three main parts – a receiver, a collector and a concentrator. There are four key solar thermal technology types – parabolic troughs, which focus sunlight onto a long thermal energy receiver above the mirrors; linear fresnel reflectors; stirling dish engines and central receivers.

Each technology differs in the way that it concentrates the solar energy, but they all track the sun to maximise energy capture and produce heat, which is then converted to electricity. Solar thermal plants generate power in a three stage process. Solar energy is first collected by the solar collectors, stored if need be and then converted to electricity.

Australia's Big Dish solar concentrators

The Australia National University in Canberra has the largest dish concentrator in the world - a 400 square metre Big Dish concentrator prototype has been operating since 1994. In June 2009, a new 500 m² solar dish was completed. It is the largest paraboloidal dish solar concentrator in the world, concentrating the sun’s radiation over 2,000 times and can drive high-temperature processes such as steam for power generation and chemical reactions for fuel production.

The new system has been designed for mass production and is a prototype for systems that will be delivered commercially.

Future prospects

With increasing uptake in solar PV and potential for commercial-scale solar thermal power plants, the solar industry has a promising future. Solar energy use in Australia is projected to increase by 5.9 per cent per year to 24 PJ in 2029–30.

The Australian Government’s $1.5 billion Solar Flagships program will support the construction and demonstration of large scale (up to 1,000 MW) solar power stations in Australia, while the Australian Solar Institute will provide funding to develop cutting edge research projects.

Future prospects for Australia’s PV industry remain strong with prices of PV systems reducing across the world while costs of electricity from traditional energy sources are increasing.
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