China earns billions of dollars exporting solar panels that are created using technology invented in Australia. A lot of them end up here.
Which sounds great, until you learn that the panels started being manufactured long after the patents on that technology had expired, meaning Australia earns nothing while China rakes it in.
While there is little money to be earned in the solar manufacturing game — unless you do it on a massive scale — the point here is that Australia used to be world-leading in solar energy creation technology but in recent decades has fallen behind. China now produces 70% of the world’s solar panels while Australia produces 0.3%.
This is bad news, considering the solar market is going to be “bigger than than oil, gas and coal put together,” according to Andrew Blakers, the director of ANU’s Centre for Sustainable Energy Systems.
There’s not only the international market to consider either, as Australia has the highest uptake of rooftop solar in the world, installing roughly 1,000 systems every single day. Wouldn’t it make sense to build some of those here? Here’s what went wrong.
It’s Basically All Our Own Fault
According to the ABC, in the year 2000, we had the largest solar manufacturing plant in the Southern Hemisphere. The University of New South Wales was the place to be if you wanted to study solar technology and the institute was breaking records in energy efficiency, lowering the price of energy to where it could compete with fossil fuels.
However, as the cost of labour and manufacturing was a lot cheaper in China, many of the experts who worked at UNSW and in the solar plant in Sydney decided they could produce solar panels for a fraction of the cost back home.
When they did, and the world started noticing, buying up panels in the millions, Australia did little to stop them. Successive federal and state governments refused to invest, or invested too little, in keeping the burgeoning industry going, shocking when you consider the fact that we subsidise the fossil fuel industry to the tune of $10.3 billion ever year — more than the entire military budget.
In 2009, the solar plant in Sydney shut, effectively wiping out an industry that today could have been world-leading, bringing green jobs and huge growth to the Australian market.
Australia has plans to build massive solar farms in the Northern Territory and Western Australia but to do so, we’ll need panels and those panels will now come from China.
That might not be such a bad thing, however, as the panels themselves are now so cheap that to manufacture them here wouldn’t be cost effective, although it wouldn’t hurt to try.
Instead, Australia can capitalise on the cheap panels and the millions of watts of untapped solar energy that shines down upon us each year to start generating huge amounts of electricity that can be exported overseas.
We’ll need a lot of panels to do it, about 15 times more than we currently have installed, but the benefits to us would be absolutely enormous.