How much solar power is needed to power the nation?

By | June 22, 2020

Way back in 2009 I was writing columns for a computer magazine and I was discussing some concepts to reduce our carbon emissions.

One of my speculative ideas was to produce all of Australia’s power via solar panels.

My rudimentary calculations at the time showed that we would only need about one thousand square kilometres of solar panels to power this nation.

That could be in one location (think of our Simpson Desert) or distributed (think of rooftop solar) but that was the total area required.

We have moved forward 11 years since I wrote that and the landscape has certainly changed.

In 2009 we used 244TWh of electricity.

This year we will use approximately 265TWh. An increase of only 8.6 per cent despite a population increase of 19.2 per cent over that same time.

So based on consumption, the amount of power needed would not need to increase dramatically since my 2009 calculation.

The area that has changed dramatically though is the technology in the solar panels themselves.

At the equator at midday the surface of the earth receives approximately one kilowatt per square metre of energy from the sun.

Converting this to electricity is the trick. In 1839 when the photovoltaic effect was discovered, production of electricity was not even at 1 per cent efficiency.

By 1954 the efficiency had only reached 4 per cent.

Today we see panel efficiencies as high as 22 per cent with the theoretical limit for silicon PV efficiency calculated to be 29 per cent.

When you consider that this nation averages 16.1 million terawatt hours of annual radiation even at 20 per cent efficiency that is about 12,000 times more power than we use.

We don’t want to cover every square kilometre of our nation with solar panels though but we are being quite creative with what we are doing.

Australia leads the way in rooftop solar panels with the highest per capita rate of installations in the world – double the rate of the next closest nation.

One issue that has been highlighted is the consumption of raw materials in the production of solar panels.

Silver is an integral component of a modern solar panel with a massive 15 per cent of the world’s industrial consumption of silver used in the production of solar panels.

Silver is a finite resource but some clever Aussie ingenuity is working on a solution. Copper is 1000 times more abundant and 100 times cheaper than silver but has not been able to be used in solar panels – until now.

One Australian company has created a process that will see silver replaced with copper while maintaining efficiency rates.

The most exciting part is not just the innovation and advancement of an already well developed technology but the salivating prospect of an entire manufacturing process being created in this country.

With so many solar panels being used across this nation, it is possible that the new post-COVID-19 economy features a reduction in globalisation and perhaps even an increase in manufacturing in Australia.

When you combine well-known Aussie ingenuity with local manufacturing you even have the possibility of an export market.

A recent Ernst and Young report laid out the details of a renewables led recovery from COVID-19 and that also featured increased manufacturing so with continuing improvements in technology and a desire across the world to produce more power using renewable sources, don’t be surprised to see more solar panels in our future – with the exciting bonus of a sticker that says ‘Made in Australia’ on them.

Tell me if you have rooftop solar panels on your house at

  • Mathew Dickerson is the founder of regional tech and communications company Axxis Technology

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