How Economically Viable is Solar Energy?

By Rich Bowden

A recent report by the University of Melbourne’s EnergyResearchInstitute has found that, not only is solar energy a viable form of energy, but that costs will compare favourably with traditional fossil fuel technology in the very near future.

The report, the Renewable Energy Technology Cost Review May 2011, was commissioned by  government climate advisor Ross Garnaut and included the current and expected future costs of three forms of renewable energy; wind, solar and thermal.

Referring to photovoltaics, the study found that the global popularity of solar power on a large scale had encouraged significant cost reductions.

According to the report: “As the industry has grown, PV module prices declined along a well-established learning curve, which has seen cost reductions of 22 percent for each doubling of cumulative capacity over the last few decades.”

The study found there was a break in this upward trend from 2003 to 2008 but that: “The learning curve has since returned towards the historic trend and the global installation capacity increased to 10 Gigawatt-peak (GWp)/annum in 2010.”

One of the study’s leading researchers Patrick Hearps, was reportedbytheABC as saying:

“We found that the current cost of technology such as solar and wind today are already cheaper than the data that is currently used by Australian Government and industry planning.”

And the key finding?

“Not only that, the cost of solar and wind are expected to drop quite significantly over the next decade.”

But just what savings are being touted by the solar energy industry?

Matthew Wright, executive director of think tank BeyondZeroEmissions, says the savings can be so significant as to not need subsidies.

“If you take the data from the International Energy Agency or the data from the US Energy Information Administration or the US DOE, it shows that for instance rooftop solar … can be down as low as 10 cents a kilowatt hour,” he said in a press release.

“[That] is one-third of what people will be paying at the meter in a decade, so obviously everybody will be putting that up and it won’t need subsidies.”

So obviously armed with that data, Australian governments, both federal and state governments will now be stampeding to put into place policies supporting renewable energy? Well don’t hold your breath. After a hammering in the federal budget and NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell’s controversial decision to reduce the solar feed-in tariff from 60 cents to 40 cents, you could be forgiven for thinking the opposite, with solar energy being squeezed instead of supported by governments.

However the final word should lie with Matthew Wright who said the report: “…sets the record straight on renewable energy costs and clearly demonstrates that rapid cost reductions are now underway.”

He adds. “The report rightly identifies deployment as the key driver of those cost reductions.”

Over to you Canberra and state capitals.

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