solarthermalBy Michael Mobbs

5 May 2010 - All of Australia’s dirty coal-fired power could be replaced with clean power by 2014. And although coal-fired power stations provide about 60 percent, or some 29 gigawatts, of Australia’s mains power (1), (2) this could all be provided by solar thermal power.

About 14 gigawatts of solar thermal power-station capacity will be built worldwide by 2014 but none of it in Australia, despite that fact that dozens of countries accept that solar thermal technology is a proven source of mains grid power both night and day (3).

Solar thermal power provides mains grid power that is the same as coal-fired power. For example, more than 354 megawatts of solar thermal power capacity has operated at Kramer Junction in California since the early 1970s; and nine commercial-scale solar-electric generating stations, the first of which began operating in 1984, produce electricity in California’s Mojave Desert. They supply over 200,000 homes.

The cost to build solar thermal power stations in Australia to replace the coal-fired ones is around $20 billion (4). The current power-station operators are seeking to raise about $100 billion to replace them with dirty systems that will meet anticipated climate change and air pollution laws.

Solar operating costs are lower than coal-fired power because the free heat of the sun is used to run the systems. The only input costs are the fluid heated up to steam temperatures by the sun, typically oil and water, (the heat from the steam or other media then powers turbines, which make the electricity in the same way as coal is burnt to run turbines) and those to store the surplus heat overnight in oil, ceramic or other storage media. Our electricity bills could therefore reduce over time if we chose solar thermal to replace coal-burning power stations.

The issue here is not whether solar thermal power works; the issue is why don’t we choose it? And why don’t we hear about solar thermal, why is the discussion confined to wind, wave, geothermal, solar photovoltaic?

Part of the answer to these questions comes by asking: What would happen if all our power actually was clean?

Imagine going to any office, factory or house in Australia where the power for the fridge, air-conditioning, the toaster, the lifts, the laptops and the swimming-pool pump was all clean. And ask who would lose out if this was Australia’s way of using electricity?

If the least efficient – and currently highly polluting – office air-conditioning system was to become clean because all its power was from the sun, then there would be no need to replace that system. And no need for those whose income derives from the current way of thinking, and regulating building and design.

Thousands of folk now have jobs by making Australia’s buildings energy efficient: those who sell design services, others who sell computer programs to rate buildings for sustainability checklists, people who make and advise about red tape to make buildings energy efficient, and many more. They would lose out because there’d be little need for them, or their services and products.

Let’s be clear. All this income is made from services or products that reduce the amount of dirty energy used. Even if they’re 100 percent successful, the dirty energy still gets used. And often the products they use are made by using dirty energy too. When was the last time you saw an energy-efficient building without air-conditioning or an electricity-based system? They are the rare exception.

Some of energy-saving actions taken by councils and building owners and developers are forced on them because that’s their only option. They cannot build a solar-thermal power station because the state governments and unions won’t let them, for ideological reasons. However, last year, NSW’s local councils unanimously resolved to buy solar thermal power instead of coal-fired power whenever it was available even if it was more expensive at the start-up phase.

Until there is clean energy, one of the biggest steps open to the private sector and local government is to use gas-powered electricity, which is about 70 percent less polluting than coal.

The main political parties oppose or are lukewarm on solar thermal for ideological reasons.

Imagine every air-conditioner, every electric heater, every energy-inefficient building that we have. Then imagine if in four years’ time every machine in it, every motor, lift, laptop and thing depending on mains grid power was powered by renewable energy from solar thermal power. Every electric light could be left burning all night and day; every air-conditioning unit no matter how energy hungry could run whenever whether in western Sydney or the city.

Shine on, lovely sun Australia’s policymakers and governments and many of the energy-efficiency tribes are blind to you.

Michael Mobbs is a sustainability coach who works with developers, governments and communities to design and obtain approvals for houses, units and subdivisions. He is based in the inner Sydney suburb of Chippendale, where in 1996 he pioneered the conversion of his inner city terrace into a sustainable house, which has now been disconnected to mains water and sewerage and is powered by solar energy. www.sustainablehouse.com.au

(1) A gigawatt is 1000 megawatts.

(2) http://www.energytoday.com.au/contentid74.html

(3) To get the list go to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_solar_thermal_power_stations

(4) Costs are discussed here, for example: http://www.energybulletin.net/49878, and http://www.energybulletin.net/node/51916