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AUSTRALIA: Solar Energy Gets a Boost, But Offers Much More

Stephen de Tarczynski

MELBOURNE, Australia, Oct 4 2010 (IPS) - Proponents of renewable energy say that a planned large-scale solar power plant in Australia’s northern Victoria state, which will produce enough output to provide electricity to 60,000 homes, is just a fraction of what could be achieved if federal and state governments were fully committed to harnessing solar energy.

The proposed 180-megawatt Mallee Solar Park power station, to be built near the town of Mildura – some 550 kilometres northwest of Melbourne – will become the largest of its kind in Australia upon its anticipated completion date in 2015.

Belonging to TRUenergy, one of Australia’s largest energy companies, the project recently received the financial backing of the Victorian Government, which committed 100 million Australian dollars (96.6 million U.S. dollars) in late September to the Mallee Solar Park.

“Together with Victorians, we are rising to the challenge of climate change by driving new initiatives to cut emissions and create a cleaner, greener future for Victorian families,” state premier John Brumby said on Sep. 21.

Solar generated electricity, along with other renewable sources like wind and hydro, is increasingly being viewed as a potential major power generator as countries around the world look to transition to low-carbon economies.

But even with the state government’s financial support, TRUenergy still requires federal dollars to proceed. “The eventuality of the Mallee Solar Park project is only feasible with the support of both the state and federal governments,” says Richard McIndoe, TRUenergy’s managing director.

The Mallee Solar Park, which will use solar photovoltaic technology, has been shortlisted alongside three other prospective solar photovoltaic power stations and four solar thermal projects for financial backing as part of the federal government’s 1.5 billion Australian dollar (1.45 billion U.S. dollar) Solar Flagships Programme (SFP).

Photovoltaic plants convert the sun’s radiation directly into electricity, while solar thermal technology generates electricity by using steam from solar-heated water to drive a turbine.

Under the SFP, one solar photovoltaic project and one proposed solar thermal plant will be selected to receive federal funding, with the recipients to be announced in the first half of 2011.

The SFP is a section of the federal government’s Clean Energy Initiative, a 5.1 billion Australian dollar (4.92 billion U.S. dollar) programme that also includes funds for other renewable and “clean coal” technologies.

In total, 52 proposals were entered for SFP funding. Tony Mohr, from the Australian Conservation Foundation, told IPS that this represents an “astounding response” to the programme, which he argues should be expanded in order to realise Australia’s potential to generate solar power.

“Australia has much more abundant solar energy than pretty much any other developed country or continent,” says Mohr.

“Germany is a world leader in solar power but it has half as much sun per square metre as Australia,” he adds.

Solar energy remains a largely untapped resource in Australia. According to the Australian Energy Resource Assessment, solar energy accounts for only 0.1 percent of total primary energy consumption here as well as globally.

And solar power is in direct competition with coal- generated electricity.

Australia has an estimated nine percent of the world’s total coal reserves and is the largest exporter of coal, feeding demand for coal-fired power stations in China, India and other developing countries.

Despite the burning of coal resulting in large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, three quarters of Australia’s electricity is also sourced from coal.

Environmentalists argue that political will, rather than technological feasibility and cost, is the key obstacle in overcoming Australia’s reliance on coal.

For the Victorian Government, backing the Mallee Solar Park project is part of its action plan – contained in its Climate Change White Paper, released in July – to tackle greenhouse gas emissions in Victoria, which it has committed to cutting by at least 20 percent by 2020.

The Brumby government also intends to support the development of between five and 10 large-scale solar power stations in Victoria over the next decade in order to reach its target of solar generated electricity accounting for five percent of the state’s output by 2020.

Mark Wakeham, campaigns director for local green organisation Environment Victoria, describes the state’s target as “really encouraging for large-scale solar” but is highly critical of plans for a new coal-fired power station to be built in Victoria.

The state’s Environment Protection Agency (EPA) has received a works approval application from Dual Gas, a subsidiary of the Australian-owned energy company HRL, for a 600-megawatt plant in the Latrobe Valley east of Melbourne.

While China National Electrical Corp, a state-owned Chinese company, has already signed on to build the proposed plant, Wakeham wants both the EPA and the Brumby government to block the development.

“Building a polluting coal-fired power station that’s going to operate until 2040 or 2050 is madness and should not be approved,” he told IPS.

Besides being “inconsistent” with the state’s emissions reduction target, the project “would be inconsistent with the Climate Change White Paper which started to map out a pathway for cleaning up Victoria’s energy supply, including a plan to replace one quarter of Hazelwood (power station),” said Wakeham.

The coal-fired Hazelwood Power Station, also located in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley, provides up to 25 percent of the state’s electricity. The plant’s owner, International Power Australia, rejects claims by environmentalists that it is Australia’s dirtiest power plant.

But activists from the Switch Off Hazelwood protest group are adamant that it be shut down, with a rally outside the plant’s gates planned for the International Day of Climate Action on Oct. 10.

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