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Australia's Super Solar Electric Plant

By James Donahue

The Australian Government has been among the world nations that have rebelled against accepting global treaties designed to fight carbon emissions and global warming. This attitude . . . perhaps based on a refusal to believe in the reality of a warming planet . . . may have been severely jarred by the extreme climate events that have ravaged Australia in recent years.

Extreme drought, severe typhoons and flooding along the coasts, and deadly heat waves may have prompted the government to get behind a movement to finance alternative energy sources. Thus the Australian government is participating in the cost of building a $1.27 billion solar electric power plant that will be the largest in the world when it goes on line in 2015.

Australia presently burns coal, which is abundant there, to generate about 77 percent of the nation’s electric needs. But the vast flat dry landscape spanning so much of this little continent also offers an abundance of sunlight. And there is nothing to prevent the construction of acres of solar panels and other devices designed to utilize all of this renewable and carbon-free energy.

The France-based consortium, Areva Solar, has contracted to build the new solar plant in the State of Queensland. It will consist of a broad field of mirrors focused on water-filled tubes to create steam. The steam will turn turbines and generate 250 megawatts of power, enough juice for 115,000 homes.

The plant also will include a natural gas-fired boiler so electricity can continue to be supplied even in the event of cloudy weather.

The Australian government will contribute $491 million and the government of Queensland is coughing up $79 million to finance the project. If successful, many see even more solar plants to follow as Australia begins to take steps to lower its carbon footprint in the world.

Ironically, Ausra Solar, now a global corporation specializing in green technology all around the world, was founded in Australia in 2002 under the name Solar Heat and Power. Its first pilot project was built in the state of New South Wales. The founders wanted to capitalize on the fact that Australia has the strong sunlight needed to operate solar-thermal plants. But the government was slow to buy into solar power so the company was sold to Areva, an engineering firm interested into breaking into a worldwide market for renewable energy.

Now that it is on board, the Australian government has set a goal of getting 20 percent of the nation’s energy from renewable sources by 2020. A government program called Solar Flagships has been established to help finance construction of as many as four utility-scale solar power plants.

If the new solar system proves effective for Australians, it may serve as a model for new power generating systems elsewhere in the world, including China, Brazil, India and the United States, where coal-fired power plants continue to spew carbon emissions into the world's brown polluted skies.

Australia and the United States were the two industrialized nations that refused to sign onto the Kyoto pact because they argued that forcing plants to cut emissions would unfairly hamper local economies that were heavily dependent on the use and exportation of coal.

Instead, the U.S. and Australia joined China, Japan, India and South Korea in founding the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Energy Development. This new organization says it wants to cooperate in finding new technologies to reduce emissions rather than join Kyoto.

The Australian Conservation Foundation says this solar plant will only be a small step toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but it is a step. Foundation members believe the most effective method would be to make polluters pay through taxation and user fees for energy consumed.

And researchers at the Australian National University suggest that rather than build a single giant solar plant, the naturally sunny climate in that country would make it possible for every home to utilize solar panels to generate power. They say the technology exists now for homes to utilize sunlight to generate power to run the household by day, and sell excess power into a national grid by night.

University Professor Andrew Blakers said a two kilowatt photovoltaic panel on each roof would both import and export power to the grid, and be so effective that the residential sector would be completely removed as a source of greenhouse gas emissions.