Major CSIRO solar breakthrough underlines ARENA’s worth

CSIRO solar tower with mirror array.

These mirrors at CSIRO in Newcastle can focus the sun to create superheated steam. That is the same pressure and temperature of steam that a coal or nuclear fired power plant creates. Amazing. Picture credit: CSIRO

Further evidence emerged this week from the CSIRO of the value of the embattled Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) to the nation. ARENA, you may well recall, is at the centre of the current government’s ideological campaign against renewable energy with its very existence now in doubt through savage proposed budget cuts.

The breakthrough was the successful heating of steam to a supercritical temperature using solar energy. Supercritical steam is very high temperature and high pressure steam, that is needed to run electricity generating turbines efficiently. Essentially this means that we can now use the sun to drive conventional electricity turbines, like those found in a coal fired or even nuclear power station. This development has the potential to be a “gamechanger” in the way we generate electricity, according to the CSIRO.

However supporters of ARENA, which includes almost anyone who doesn’t listen to Alan “The Shrieking Parrot” Jones, point to the economic as well as the obvious environmental benefits of having such an agency. ARENA, perhaps the poster child of attracting investment for clean energy, has brought billions dollars worth of investment to this sector in the form of financial support for renewable projects and research, with this achievement just the tip of the iceberg.

Over $7.7 billion worth of projects are in the pipeline, ARENA’s executive Ivor Frischnacht has previously explained, with many more billions of dollars worth of investment being drawn in should a level of government support in the marketplace ever return. The key to ARENA’s success is that it provides a level of certainty for investors looking to develop projects such as solar power stations. While taxpayers’ money provide that certainty, it is significant that, for every dollar ARENA spends, the private sector adds a huge $1.80.

Whatever your stance on climate change, a carbon tax, reliance on fossil fuels and a clean energy future, the fact is that ARENA has been very successful in drawing in huge investment from both the private sector and from overseas for the benefit of the country. Many worthy clean energy projects would be starved of funds without the agency’s seed backing. This means jobs and economic growth in regions which may be struggling in the current economic climate. Any government bean counter worth his or her salt would realise that destroying such a government agency corresponds to economic (let alone environmental) lunacy.

Unless of course the government’s argument is purely ideological and driven by lobbyists from vested interests. Surely not?

If this didn’t make the case for ARENA, this week’s breakthrough news from the CSIRO solar boffins underlines in big, bold ink the value of the agency to Australia. The CSIRO Newcastle Energy Centre announced that solar energy has been successfully used to generate steam to “supercritical” temperatures — 570 degrees Celsius at a pressure of 23.5 megapascals. This is the highest level ever achieved outside of fossil fuel generation.

So important is this breakthrough that CSIRO Solar Energy Director Dr Alex Wonhas described it as a major step bringing solar into line with the performance of fossil fuels. While still in the early stage, this has the potential to change the way we generate electricity.

“It’s like breaking the sound barrier,” he told the ABC.

“This step change proves solar has the potential to compete with the peak performance capabilities of fossil fuel sources.”

This is huge, and a sign that Aussie renewable energy innovation is alive and well despite the best efforts of the trog bean counters in Canberra.

But underneath lies the real story: the breakthrough is the result of ARENA support for the $9.7 million research program and the destruction of the agency may well mean the end, or slowing down, of such renewable energy research in our country.

It is ironic that, at a time when we need research into clean energy most, when the world is moving towards embracing solar energy, our Canberra seat polishers are withdrawing into their shells and slashing funding to successful (indeed model) agencies such as ARENA. Instead of holding up government agencies such as ARENA proudly before the world as an example of government support for clean energy, our PM is leading a scorched earth policy towards renewables. Indeed, in his capacity as chair of the G20, our Tone has attempted to strike discussion of clean energy completely from the agenda of the group’s upcoming meeting: to the astonishment of the world and the embarrassment of Australians.

The reason that solar energy is advancing with leaps and bounds in this country is not because, but despite, government policy. The success is driven by ordinary Australians who have responded to the need for clean energy by installing domestic solar systems and supporting green energy. Isn’t it high time the policy makers took note of the huge popularity of renewables such as solar and supported government agencies such as ARENA? Or is that too much to ask? Will solar breakthroughs such as that at CSIRO Newcastle be the victim of the government’s ideological campaign against renewable energy? Time to hold this government to account on clean energy.


  1. Yes Minister says

    Lets see what excuses the troglodytes in Canberra dream up to oppose ARENA now

  2. Colin Spencer says

    Unfortunately, as much as we all love to get a slice of the money that governments hand out from time to time, the solar industry is now old enough to stand on its own two feet. Component costs are way down on what they were five years ago. I saw a lady on ABC TV on the weekend saying that there were about 3 million premises with solar on their roof already. So, it isn’t a pile of taxpayer subsidies that’s needed, just a bit of competitive marketing and determination to get on with the job. Remember this, if the industry needs continual support it will be confirmed as an economic failure. It is not! Be creative! There are countless commercial premises with huge roof areas just begging to be covered in solar panels. There are millions of opportunities to re-sell to existing solar system owners if you can come up with an economical battery pack and different control electrics to go with it. Toyota Camry Hybrid battery packs are down from $8,000+ to $2,400, so be innovative, find a supplier of Lithium poly battery packs for systems from 2 kw to 10 kw and get out there to sell upgrades. The opportunities are endless, particularly in light commercial applications.

    • Yes Minister says

      Probably some sense in that, unfortunately the typical solar installer I’ve encountered has been somewhat less than inspiring. If its not a bog-standard 1 – 2 kw grid connect, its way beyond their capability. For what its worth, I had reason to find one in Queensland who was halfway conversant with the new non-export rules about to be introduced here however a ring around failed to unearth even one who knew what I was on about. Same goes for off-grid systems, I seriously doubt there is one installer in the state capable of intelligent comment. Consumers shouldn’t need to teach tradies their job but seems thats the state of play in the deep north. How these turkeys stay in business a week is beyond me.

    • dabbbles says

      Colin and YesMinister MUST be absolutely wrong, since they agree with my stated position(s).

      As for the politics of it all:- John Howard pointed out clearly and succinctly that governments were NOT elected to do the will of the people: they were elected to govern them.

      If people want more certainty and control (of EVERY aspect of their lives) they’re going to have to go out and get it themselves.

      A good start would be to stop voting for pompous, self-righteous and self-important parasites.
      Another would be to stop paying taxes to support them.
      I can never shake off the thought that the Americans (before they ‘lost it’) were willing to take on the world’s Superpower of the day over the price of a cuppa tea.
      And won!

      • dabbbles says

        ps. Solar-focussing parabolic dishes are not news. The self-sufficiency crowd were selling them commercially as cook-stoves before the mid-1970s. Only the will was lacking.

  3. Rich Bowden says

    Great debate started by Colin and Yes Minister. Does the solar industry need government subsidy? Or should it now stand on its own two feet. Thanks for your input folks.

    • Surely it’s not sensible to put no subsidy and “standing on solar’s own two feet” as the extreme. Just about every industry gets some help from governments even if its in the form of research grants and scientific support. One example is the tourism industry which gets a mountain of cash for the very good reason that it makes money in the long term where our “leaders” should be focused” The Americans get around the problem by spending on military research and letting their industry benefit from the results. Hence no one can complain that they are subsidising an industry. A good subsidy to the EV industry would be a government order to replace all gov vehicles with EVs made in Australia for good reasons. One excuse (reason) might be designing for the unique Australian conditions, such as auto braking and dodging kangaroos and wombats. Im sure there are lots of unarguable reasons we could support a lot of valuable research that would finance world leading Niche EV designs.

  4. Steve Fuller says

    This article isn’t about rooftop solar pv. It’s about solar thermal. PV uses the photons in the sun’s rays. Solar thermal uses the heat energy in the sun’s rays. Different physical processes. You’re not going to install a solar thermal plant on your roof unless you have a very very big roof.

    PV can provide electricity while the sun shines. Solar thermal (with storage) can provide base load electricity. A generation system that combines a mixture of the above with complementary renewable technologies along with a populace that has expectations moderated by what is reasonable and sustainable is the future.

    Conservative economics exhorts us to live within our means. In the energy field this makes sense. Why on earth do we need or want a system that panders to our every whim?

    It’s high time we rationalised our expectations and demanded a sustainable system.

    The fossil companies are living in the past. We, the citizens, need to reclaim the electricity system so that it works for the common good not for the profit takers.

    We live in a society not an economy. Capitalism is only a useful idea if it works for us, not against us and our environment. CSIRO and ARENA are useful institutions working for us, the companies who would have our government destroy them are working for themselves not for our society. So, it is they that we must destroy or at least their destructive political agenda.

    It is WE that must do the destruction. WE must stand up and be counted.

    Join a pro-renewables group and get active NOW before it’s too late.

    • dabbbles says

      et tu Steve?! Why am I feeling so self-satisfied today?

      THE way to get the attention of the (self-proclaimed) ‘powers-that-be’ is to stop feeding them.

      We could support any number of worthwhile projects if we with-held what we now pay in taxes/levies/fees/charges/fines/etc.etc.etc. (I’d include things like crashing banking bureaucracies and ‘credit’-card providers. Cut up your plastic and only, EVER, deal with banks on YOUR own ‘terms and conditions’.

      Other bullshit costs include the ‘Service-to-Property’ charge to connect cables to the grid. Any other business (except governments!) count their overheads (pun!) into the price of their product. That way those who choose to use more pay more.

      Count me in.

    • Rich Bowden says

      Thanks Steve. Great points.

    • Hear Hear!!!

  5. kristrader says

    We must all shout out loud. I am a liberal supporter for life by family tradition , but we need this CSIRO breakthrough to be developed to its remarkable potential ,nothing should hold it back.

    I am personally very disappointed with this Liberal Party, we need these sort of technologies to be put into action as soon as possible. Australia once again should be driving the world forward instead of sitting on the back seat with a fossil fuel economy.

    Australia can obtain huge prestige and economic benefits from CSIRO technology.

    • Yes Minister says

      There is a quantum difference between the halfway responsible conservatives many of us traditionally supported and the present tribe that is nothing but a front for its big business cronies. Despite an unbroken heritage of conservative backing for hundreds of years, I seriously doubt I’ll ever again give the LNP more than the absolute bottom vote, particularly Wacky Wabbott / Noddy Newman mobs. The suggestion from Steve Fuller re renewables groups is fine, providing said group or groups are more than a thinly disguised pro-conservative lobby organization as is the case with several of my acquaintance.

  6. Look what we have just achieved. In less than a year we have made a war like effort to overcome the effect of the virus and put the country into about a trillion dollars of debt. All of a sudden we dont have a deficit emergency and we are still a lot better off than many OECD countries. Imagine if we actually invested a half trillion dollars into building the best renewable energy system we could get. We could have a distributed generation ability so we would save the cost of the expensive grid. The writing is on the walll that power that costs a couple of cents per kwh at the powerhouse gate is coming The only extra cost is the distribution grid and “marketing”. Why do you need marketing of what is a natural monopoly?
    With real support for research we could be the first in the market with a renewable steel making system and a renewable cement marketing plant. Either of these would earn a lot more than, for example, a CCS system that sort of worked but is passed its use by date and must become a stranded asset in 10 or 15 years.
    If we get there quickly it just we save a whole mountain of money in ten years time and Australia will be a more efficient and competitive country in 10 years time.


  1. Why the IPA's influence is poisoning renewable energy policy. says:

    […] proving itself a success story in investment and research and development in projects such as the CSIRO Newcastle solar thermal breakthrough. ARENA’s positive work therefore runs counter to the interests of the fossil fuel-supporting IPA […]

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