Renewable energy and other clean technologies are taking off around the world, driven by rising investment and continued technical advances, and Australian innovators and manufacturers are at the heart of it.

This July saw a surge in wholesale electricity prices in South Australia, rising to an average of $321 per megawatt hour, compared with $80/MWh for July 2015. The price spikes drew extensive media coverage, with some commentators claiming SA’s extensive adoption of renewable power had left it exposed in a month of unusually low winds. The Minerals Council of Australia claimed that SA’s decision to “disproportionally rely on intermittent wind and solar power” raised the risk of “higher prices, supply instability and greater reliance on imported power”.

These claims were met with equally vocal counter-arguments. The Climate Council published a report suggesting that electricity price spikes in SA had actually fallen as renewable electricity had risen. Professor Hugh Saddler of the Australian National University (ANU) argued that the problem lay with broader flaws in the SA wholesale electricity market, and that wind power in fact helped to smooth out more frequent price spikes.

The SA episode demonstrates that renewable energy remains the focus of persistent dispute, over both the viability of the technology, and the necessity of its adoption. However, while the debate is likely to rumble on, renewables and clean technology are indisputably experiencing a wave of accelerating innovation and growth.

According to the Clean Energy Council, renewable energy provided 14.6% of Australia’s electricity in 2015, up from 13.5% a year before, despite a significant drop in hydro-generation due to lower rainfall. Rooftop solar is now at 5GW capacity – enough to light every home in Brisbane and Perth. Five new wind farms were built in 2015, as well as eight solar farms larger than 1MW capacity.

This wave of activity is underpinned by government policy. On the ABC’s Q&A on 15 August, during a discussion on climate change, Industry Minister Greg Hunt said: “Our policy is that it’s real and it’s important and it’s significant.” Earlier that month, Josh Frydenberg, Minister for the Environment and Energy, announced that the Government will provide up to $5m through the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) to fund installation of 1,000 battery storage systems in homes and businesses throughout South Australia.

A further $17.4m of ARENA funding has been assigned to a project to build a 10.8MW solar photovoltaic (PV) plant with 1.4MW/5.3 MWh of battery storage in far north Queensland. The Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) committed a record $837m to new investments in the Australian clean energy sector in the 2015-16 financial year, contributing to projects with a total value of $2.5bn.

Developments like these are being mirrored overseas. In its Renewables 2016 Global Status Report, REN21 (the UN-backed Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century) described 2015 as “an extraordinary one for renewable energy” with the largest global capacity additions to date, against the backdrop of last November’s historic Paris climate agreement.

This context offers enormous commercial potential that Australia is particularly well positioned to exploit. Moreover, as the SA case perhaps shows, this remains a relatively new technology, with scope for enhancement and innovation. And across Australia, researchers and businesses are seizing the resultant opportunities.

Breaking solar records

In August, ANU scientists announced a new world record for efficiency for a solar thermal dish generating steam. The team designed and built a new receiver for the solar concentrator dish, halving losses and achieving a 97% conversion of sunlight into steam. The breakthrough could lead to cheaper base-load electricity from renewable energy, and reduced carbon emissions.

“When our computer model told us the efficiency that our design was going to achieve, we thought it was alarmingly high,” says Dr John Pye, from the ANU Research School of Engineering. “But when we built it and tested it, sure enough, the performance was amazing.”

Concentrating solar thermal systems use reflectors to concentrate sunlight and generate steam. This can drive conventional power station turbines, and may be combined with efficient heat storage systems to supply power on demand more cheaply than solar PV energy stored in batteries. Global capacity has grown tenfold in the past decade, with large installations in Spain, the US and South Africa.

At 500 square metres, the ANU solar concentrator is the largest of its kind in the world, focusing the power of 2,100 suns. The receiver’s design comprises a cavity resembling a top hat with narrow opening and a wide brim. Water pipes spiral around the underside of the brim and up into the hat. Sunlight focused on the pipes heats the water to 500 degrees Celsius in the deepest reaches of the cavity, minimising heat loss. Heat that does leak out can be absorbed by cooler water around the brim.

The ANU team is part of a broader group of scientists working in the area, with funding from ARENA. The ANU team’s solar thermal system is already attracting commercial interest.

“Ultimately the work in this project is all about reducing the cost of concentrating solar thermal energy,” said Pye. “Our aim is to get costs down to 12 cents per kilowatt-hour of electricity, so that this technology will be competitive. This new design could result in a 10% reduction in the cost of solar thermal electricity. I’m optimistic that our technology can play a role in the grid, by helping to provide power at night without fossil fuel power stations running.”

Trapping the light fantastic

More records are being broken at the University of New South Wales (UNSW). Dr Mark Keevers and Professor Martin Green of the Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics (ACAP) have dramatically lifted the efficiency of photovoltaics, setting a world record for sunlight-to-electricity conversion. The record was set using a prism configuration that splits incoming rays into four bands, with a hybrid four-junction receiver squeezing more electricity than ever before from each beam of sunlight.

The UNSW module converts 34.5% of received solar energy into electricity. The result, confirmed by the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory, is almost 44% better than the previous record, set by Atla Devices of the US. This reached 24% efficiency, but over a larger surface area of 800sqcm. The UNSW module is 28sqcm.

“There are still advances to come in photovoltaics research to make solar cells even more efficient,” says Keevers. “Extracting more energy from every beam of sunlight is critical to reducing the cost of electricity generated by solar cells as it lowers the investment needed, delivering payback faster.”

The same team set a world record in 2014 achieving electricity conversion of more than 40%, but using mirrors to concentrate the light. The new result was achieved using normal sunlight with no concentrators.

According to Green, Australia’s research in photovoltaics has already generated flow-on benefits of more than $8bn to the country. Efficiency gains alone are forecast to save $750m in domestic electricity generation in the next decade. The record-setting UNSW mini-module is perfect for solar towers, like those being developed by Australia’s RayGen Resources. However, solar cells of this type are unlikely to find their way onto rooftops soon due to high manufacturing costs and complexity – a problem the UNSW team is working on.

“What’s remarkable is this level of efficiency had not been expected for many years,” says Green, a pioneer in solar research for 40 years. “Things are moving faster in solar cell efficiency than many experts expected, and that’s good news for solar energy.”

Power packed

UNSW researchers are also making giant leaps in the next key element in renewable energy provision: power storage.

“You can have the best solar cell in the world, but if the sun’s not shining, it’s not going to produce any energy,” explains Dr Neeraj Sharma from UNSW’s School of Chemistry. “But with the right battery, you can produce constant energy output.”

Not content with simply making a more powerful battery, Sharma is doing it using non-toxic, environmentally friendly materials. His next-generation rechargeable batteries may even one day run on seawater.

Today’s phones and laptops run on lithium-ion batteries. These systems work well and have prompted significant R&D investment from heavyweight companies. In 2015, both Tesla and Panasonic unveiled lithium-ion batteries for residential energy storage. Tesla’s Powerwall unit is already available in Australia for around $9,500. However, many researchers consider lithium-ion batteries too expensive, while alternatives such as lead-acid batteries are heavy and inefficient.

Sharma is taking a different tack, replacing lithium with sodium in the form of readily available salty water. He believes this would be about one-fifth the cost, affordable for households and communities. To make a simple sodium battery, you need to stick two electrodes into seawater. The challenge is making that battery more sophisticated. Sharma is doing so by tweaking the electrodes at structural level, so the battery can provide eight-to-ten hours of constant electricity. The team has already made significant improvements with its positive electrode, or cathode, and has it performing as well as a modern lithium-ion battery. They’re now working on getting the negative electrode, or anode, up to scratch. Once done, Sharma believes the battery could be key to providing cheap, sustainable electricity.

“Energy is a massive challenge for humankind,” says Sharma. “If we can control the chemistry to make a better battery, it would make renewable energy more affordable and reliable. We’re essentially producing a way to get people off fossil fuels.”

Making light work of efficiency

Energy efficiency is another area of clean-tech where Australian researchers and businesses are collaborating and innovating. In July, Greenearth Energy announced a project with CSIRO to develop advanced manufacturing processes for the design and development of energy-efficient lighting solutions. The collaboration involves various research projects focused on production methods, materials and technologies used by Greenearth subsidiary Vivid Industrial in lighting applications.

Greenearth received a grant to begin work with CSIRO through CSIRO’s SME Connect program, which facilitates grants for small and medium businesses to access research expertise. The grant was provided under the Innovation Connections element of the Federal Government’s Entrepreneurs’ Programme.

Vivid Industrial provides customised, intelligent and energy-efficient lighting solutions for industrial and infrastructure clients. The collaboration has already seen the development of technology to reduce one of its manufacturing processes from 24 hours to one minute. This will yield substantial productivity and quality benefits for Vivid’s locally designed and manufactured intelligent LED lighting products, helping it compete in global markets dominated by products manufactured in low‐cost countries. Such process improvements also assist Vivid to rapidly scale its capacity in response to demand.

Greenearth’s Chief Operating Officer Urbain Du Plessis believes the collaboration shows how the research community and companies can collaborate to deliver tangible commercial outcomes: “We have found when we focus CSIRO’s broad scientific vision and deep knowledge base, combined with its capacity, enthusiasm and mental agility on specific areas, highly innovative, commercially‐relevant solutions are rapidly developed.”

Dr Timothy Hughes, a manufacturing research team leader at CSIRO, also emphasises the advantages of researchers and industry pooling their expertise.

“The partnership with Greenearth Energy highlights the commercial benefit that can be achieved when commercial organisations work with research institutions like CSIRO,” says Hughes. “The outcome from this collaboration has been a significantly improved manufacturing process providing Greenearth with a distinct advantage, in being able to ensure their ability to be competitively viable on a global stage.”

Smart solutions

Another company that recently received funding from the Entrepreneurs’ Programme is Renewable Energy Solutions Australia (RESA). Based in Queensland, RESA specialises in developing unique products specifically for the renewable energy space. On 17 August it received a $490,070 Accelerating Commercialisation grant to assist in bringing its VoltLogic energy management system to manufacture.

“We’ve been running since about 2010,” says Michael Le Messurier, RESA’s General Manager. “And we’re now at a stage where we’ve jumped from what I guess you’d call an innovation start-up into a fully-fledged business making real products. And that’s what this grant is really designed to do, to accelerate that.”

The company currently has two products: VoltLogic, and Eco Whisper. In development since around 2010, Eco Whisper is a small wind turbine designed for urban and remote environments. Unlike the large, propeller-like three-blade turbines seen on wind-farms dotting the rural landscape, the Eco Whisper’s design more resembles a jet engine. It also boasts a smaller footprint, and crucially is extremely quiet.

“Because it’s virtually silent, it addresses a number of consumer concerns over noise,” says Le Messurier. “There’s a lot of negative press around wind turbines and noise and apparent effects on health, which is more related to the larger-scale, megawatt-class turbines. The Eco Whisper is targeted more at the smaller end – four or five homes, or a small factory. It has application in off-grid environments as well, remote or mini grids.”

VoltLogic in part complements the EcoWhisper, as it can operate as an inverter for the turbine, but it is also compatible with multiple forms of renewable energy. According to Le Messurier, in simple terms, VoltLogic is a smart energy solution that manages electricity generated from wind, solar or aqua turbines, controlling its flow into homes, small communities or factories, or into battery storage, and then regulating its distribution for local use or into the grid.

“It has a lot of benefits for the consumer in that it can manage the power quality, and therefore improve efficiency in the use of power on the site,” says Le Messurier. “It also has benefits the other side of the meter, for the utilities, in that it can manage voltage rise, phase imbalance, power factor correction, and so on. We’re bringing multiple functionalities within one platform, and that platform is expandable. It can work within a residential environment, or it can be expanded to commercial environments.”

RESA has a partnership with Geelong-based Austeng for early-stage, small-volume manufacture of the Eco Whisper, and is looking for partners to manufacture VoltLogic. The company is keen to keep production on-shore, but given the cost-sensitive nature of the market, it is also considering manufacturing overseas.

“The costs of solar versus wind turbines are kind of worlds apart,” says Le Messurier. “So that’s our challenge, getting the cost down, through partners either in Australia or overseas. There’s a lot of cost base, particularly on the components side.”

The recent grant award will help guide RESA’s decision-making process in this regard, allowing it to undertake a manufacturing run on VoltLogic aimed at finding efficiencies. It will also enable RESA to investigate other potential improvements, such as reducing the product’s physical size.

“I guess tying in to the backing is: where does it fit for partners in Australia?” says Le Messurier. “Not so much the physical making-of, but the design and facilitation processes, the management of it. That’s where the opportunities for Australian partners lie. And that’s where I think we’ve got a really strong competitive advantage, a lot of great expertise in Australia to facilitate that. And that’s what we’ll be engaging in.

“What is critical for us is that if we can find a partner that has the expertise, in particular with some of the components such as enclosures, printed circuit boards, and so on. Basically, is there a partner out there that can provide a full turnkey solution, final testing and verification, that’s at a cost structure that’s will enable us to be competitive in the market? That’s what it comes down to.”

Le Messurier believes it’s an exciting time right now for Australian innovators and manufacturers in the renewables and clean-tech space, with a lot of opportunities up for grabs.

“There’s a number of new initiatives going on from a high level in driving innovation,” he says. “And from a manufacturer’s perspective, that’s exciting. Australians have a lot of good ideas. We’re good at creating things, doing things differently. We’re extremely good at being innovative. That’s what I think we do well and do differently compared to other advanced economies.

“The opportunity’s there, but the question for manufacturers is how we tap into that, to enable and nurture that growth so it keeps giving. I’d love to be able to say Australia is competitive on cost in a general manufacturing sense, but it’s not. We’ve got to be different, we’ve got to innovate, and think outside the box.”