Blinded By The Sun

  • Date: 13/08/10

THE beauty about solar power stations is that you just have to promise them. Never mind that you won’t deliver. After all, the new green faith is about seeming, not doing, right?

I again mention this truth because the Brumby Government now promises to make Victoria the “solar capital” of Australia.

Premier John Brumby says he wants to build up to 10 big new solar plants so we can get greenhouse-friendly power.

In fact, the Herald Sun said, he “set a target of 5 per cent of the state’s electricity coming from large solar plants within 10 years”. Which is untrue.

And, as Brumby declared, those five to 10 new plants included “an existing proposal to build a station outside Mildura by 2015”. Which is a warning.

First to that target. As readers may know, the sun does not shine at night. It also doesn’t shine much on cloudy days. So the 5 per cent target is actually for the plant’s capacity in perfect conditions, and not actual delivery.

In fact, the Government hopes by 2020 to have solar power stations that could produce 5 per cent of our electricity in endless sun, but which will supply perhaps just a quarter of that.

But will it manage even this?

The only big solar plant close to being built is that one near Mildura. So keen has the Government been to seem green that it promised this project’s private owners $50 million to get it up, and prime minister John Howard, desperate in his last days to seem funky, threw in $75 million.

This for a plant that would produce only enough wildly overpriced power at peak times for 45,000 homes, but no factories, and would still need conventional power stations humming on line for when the sun didn’t shine.

Yet still the project collapsed last year, throwing 100 people out of work.

In February, with $150 million of investors’ money gone, including up to $3 million of the government handouts, its carcass was sold to Silex Systems for just $20 million.

More cautious, Silex said it had “the aim of commencing commercial project activities in 2011”, which “could then lead to the construction of a . . . pilot facility”, which was “potentially a precursor” to the power station Brumby now counts among the ones he’s promising by 2020.

And that is the most likely of the lot. Provided the governments still stump up the $135 million they’ve promised.

I wouldn’t be counting on that project just yet, or another nine like it.

Indeed, this week we learned another government-backed solar project had flared out, this one in Queensland.

The Cloncurry plant was meant to be the hero of a $30 million plan to heat water and generate electricity by using 8000 mirrors to trap the sun’s rays, but three years on, just four panels are up.

Among the excuses is that residents could have been blinded by the plant.

What do these examples tell us?

First, that solar power is a hopelessly expensive technology, still in its infancy.

Second, that governments are mugs to invest in what the markets won’t, particularly when the technology is evolving so fast that yesterday’s cutting edge is today’s flared pants.

And, third, governments still don’t care, knowing voters are more dazzled by solar promises than appalled by solar failures. Just see how even old promises are praised when promised anew.

In 2002, this Labor government promised to get 10 per cent of our power from renewable sources by 2010. In 2006, it promised the same again, but for 2016.

Yet our renewable energy capacity is still stuck around 5 per cent, with most of that hydro power—thanks to dams we’re banned from building.

But stare up at the sun long enough with your glad eyes, young dupe, and you’ll be blind to the mess at your feet.

Herald Sun, 12 August 2010

 

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