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Is solar power the answer?

By Don Aitkin - posted Friday, 7 December 2012


I wrote a couple of days ago about what I see as the fatuity of investing public money in wind turbines to provide energy for the national grid. A reference in that piece to solar energy caused a small flurry of emails from those who have a similar feeling about solar power. So today I'll try and set the record straight about solar power, too.

In the 1980s I was a member, and then Chairman, of the Australian Research Grants Committee, and was asked then to set up and chair the new Australian Research Council. I was at the same time a member of the Australian Science and Technology Council, reporting to the Prime Minister. This was a period when the shift occurred from the notion that public funding should only go to so-called 'pure research' (that which the researcher wanted to do, because it was interesting and might lead to new knowledge), to the notion that whatever we funded had to in some sense benefit the Australian taxpayer who was, after all, providing the money.

The shift didn't occur overnight. It had been coming for some time, and I first encountered it when I went to see the Secretary of the Department of Finance about why the ARGC was not getting any more money. His reply was that we oughtn't to be getting any at all. What did we have to show for the money we had already received since the inception of the ARGC in 1964? That was a hard question to answer. I gave him the traditional sermon about how pure research led to applied, and then to new products and processes. He asked for examples of where ARGC support had done just that. Examples were hard to produce. This was a sobering experience. We didn't lose any money, just then, but I could see the writing on the wall.

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Along with the other members of ASTEC I was also dealing with issue after issue, prompted sometimes by the PM and sometimes on our own initiative, that involved spending public money on this or that possibility to capture a new technology, or improve this or that aspect of the Australian economy. On the whole we were sceptical. Australia didn't have the industrial base to allow us make great advances in technology. We were good at invention (the 'R' of R&D) but not so good at the 'D'. And at the third stage, the 'C' of commercialisation, we were left for dead by the USA, Japan, and Europe. I learned that for every dollar spent on the R, we would need to spend $10 on the D, and $100 on the C.

What should be done about all this? We should, it seemed, look to the future and see where Australia's real advantages lay. In time I was sitting on the Prime Industries and Energy Council and also a regular observer at the Industrial Research and Development Board, and in these groups the same questions kept coming up. The general feeling was that we had to find a new approach to R&D, and it would inolve setting priorities of some kind, not for all spending but at least for new spending.

ASTEC set out the case in two major reports, Setting Directions for Australian Research (1990) and Research and Technology: Future Directions (1991). To some degree those reports prefigured what has happened since. There is now a much more explicit agenda in R&D, and relevant agencies that spend money are expected to set priorities and, to a degree, ensure that their priorities are in harmony with those of the Commonwealth Government.

Though I was one who, in the 1980s, thought that we had to do something to provide more money for research - and there is now vastly more R&D money than there was then - I cannot say that I am delighted with the result. I no longer have my papers from thirty years ago, but I do remember arguing within the ARGC, after my unhappy experience in Finance, that we had to support excellent research that was unarguably in Australia's interest, and offered solar energy as an example.

We were then supporting an excellent group at UNSW, and there was another at the ANU, separately funded. Again, my memory is that the efficiency of solar energy collection in the early 1980s was about seven per cent. Twenty years later it was at about 50 per cent, and some of that gain came from strong financial support from the ARGC and ARC. We had moved from hot water to electricity generation.

What has happened with 'priorities' in R&D is that they have become political. Almost everything in government can become political. The environmental movement captured solar and wind energy and advocated subsidising them (not the R&D, but the products) on the ground that the world was facing its final crisis, some kind of Thermageddon. In the old days ASTEC would have been asked to write a report on a subject like that, or at least to provide a briefing to the PM. But ASTEC is no more, and has been replaced by the office of the Chief Scientist. ASTEC was set up as an independent body able to provide independent advice. I don't think the same is true of its replacement.

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I object to having to pay more for electricity that is produced inefficiently and erratically because some people are worried about the end of the world. In the 1980s, solar energy looked a possible way in the future of protecting our small and diminishing reserves of oil - because even then there were experts telling us that 'Peak Oil' had already arrived. It would never have occurred to me that we would be considering it as a source of baseline power. How would we store overnight the energy gained during the day? No one had the answer then, and no one has produced an efficient working model of the answer today. For isolated settlements and properties? Yes. For the grid? No.

I would not say that 'priorities' have had their day, but I think it is time to look back at what has happened, and consider whether or not we might have overdone their use in R&D.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, What Was It All For? The Reshaping of Australia was published by Allen & Unwin.

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