SunDrive shows the way to solar power industry

By Peter Roberts

How many more years are we going to waste before we get serious about building competitive advantage in solar cell manufacturing on the basis of our abundant natural and human resources.

I bring this up in the light of news that Sydney’s SunDrive has again claimed a new world record for a photo voltaic cell – with a commercial size cell turning sunlight into electricity with an efficiency of 25.54 per cent.

SunDrive’s new cell is produced with copper rather than expensive silver, promising future cost reductions in manufacture.

The company is only the latest manifestation of Australia’s genuine leadership in solar cell technology that grows out of decades of work at the University of New South Wales School of Photovoltaics & Renewable Energy Engineering.

The majority of solar cells manufactured globally use their core technology, but despite several attempts, we have never made the transition to large scale manufacture.

For a time BP operated a large solar PV manufacturing plant at Homebush in NSW, but this was eventually closed.

Then there was a brave attempt by the Carr NSW government and then state-owned energy providers to bankroll another local technology in thin film cells that could be produced in a highly automated factory.

After hundreds of millions in funding, that technology was sold and commercialised in Germany.

Later a UNSW Phd student Shi Zhengrong took knowledge accumulated at the university back to China to found Suntech Power, which has since produced more than 13 million solar panels.

SunDrive, which has been achieving progressively higher efficiency levels, is not the only Australian startup that has technology that could be parlayed into cell manufacturing with the right backing.

SunDrive co-founder Vince Allen recently met industry minister Ed Husic and noted on social media ‘Australia has the potential to become a solar manufacturing powerhouse’.

He said Australia:

  • had the resources – Australia is in the top 3 global reserves of every major mineral required to make a solar panel which no other country can claim
  • had the ability – Australia invented todays commercial solar technology and has held the world record efficiency for 30 of the last 40 years.
  • And had the people – many of the worlds top solar executives, scientists and engineers were trained at Australian Universities.

Allen said: “Australia already has the fastest growing rooftop solar market in the world and will likely be home to the five largest solar farms by the end of this decade.

“Despite this adoption, according to Net Zero Australia, Australia will require 1900GW of solar to reach net zero, a 70 times increase from Australia’s current installed solar capacity of 27GW.”

This one case where we really cannot say, as we have done so often to excuse the loss of manufacturing offshore – that our market is too small to support local mass production.

And today there are renewables entrepreneurs such as Andrew Forrest and Mike Cannon-Brookes who just might fund it.

Australia is exactly the country where local production makes sense – if only we grasp the opportunity.

Image: SunDrive

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