This year, the Australian branch of Ausra, a US-based company, is preparing to announce new deals worth more than $1 billion to build large solar power plants in at least two Australian states.
Former Sydney University Professor David Mills is the founder of one of the worlds most successful solar companies, but he had to move to America before he could fully realise his dream. After battling against successive Australian governments’ anti-renewables policies, he decided it was better to move to California’s Silicon Valley to set up Ausra’s headquarters there. It has attracted some high-profile fans, including Californian Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has called Ausra “one of the best companies in California and the world”.
Its solar thermal power technology — first developed in New South Wales, and capable of generating electricity on an industrial scale for much less than the cost of traditional photovoltaic panels — is now very much in demand.
It is interesting to note that it is the off-grid demand that is driving growth, in particular the mining industry with it’s requirement for power in far-flung locations. One of those power plants is likely to use a combination of solar thermal and gas to provide 24-hour baseload electricity to power a remote mining operation. The other is likely to feed extra power into the national electricity grid.
“We’ve been working with state and federal governments very closely in the last six to nine months in particular, as well as the mining industry, which is leading the way in interest in off-grid applications…We will have deals (to announce) this year for certain. It’s very difficult to tell you where they are, but they’re in two different states and they are very large projects.”
But despite his optimistic outlook, Mr Matthews agreed with other solar experts in calling for stronger national policies in Australia, particularly a gross feed-in tariff and loan guarantees, which are driving new investment in countries such as Germany and the United States. “That’s what they’re doing elsewhere in the world and that’s what really needs to happen here too,” he said.
Last year, Ausra opened a solar thermal manufacturing factory in Las Vegas and a small-scale power plant in the desert north of Los Angeles. It is now preparing to build a larger 177-megawatt power plant in central California, able to power 120,000 homes — roughly the equivalent of powering Canberra.
Ausra’s history reflects an ongoing brain drain of Australian solar expertise to countries with long-term investment policies for renewable energy. Among the experts who have been forced to take their technology to other countries are former University of NSW student Dr Zhengrong Shi, who became China’s first solar billionaire, as well as Dr Shi’s former professor, Martin Green, whose award-winning thin-film solar panels are now manufactured in Germany.