Solar Energy

Solar power is generated when energy from the sun (sunlight) is converted into electricity or used to heat air, water, or other fluids. There are two main types of solar energy technologies:

  • Solar thermal is the conversion of solar radiation into thermal energy (heat). Thermal energy carried by air, water, or other fluid is commonly used directly, for space heating, or to generate electricity using steam and turbines. Solar thermal is commonly used for hot water systems. Solar thermal electricity, also known as concentrating solar power, is typically designed for large scale power generation.
  • Solar photovoltaic (PV) converts sunlight directly into electricity using photovoltaic cells. PV systems can be installed on rooftops, integrated into building designs and vehicles, or scaled up to megawatt scale power plants. PV systems can also be used in conjunction with concentrating mirrors or lenses for large scale centralised power.

Solar thermal and PV technology can also be combined into a single system that generates both heat and electricity.

Australia’s solar energy resources and production

The Australian continent has the highest solar radiation per square metre of any continent and consequently some of the best solar energy resource in the world. The regions with the highest solar radiation are the desert regions in the northwest and centre of the continent.

Australia’s energy resources, including solar energy resources, and the factors impacting on the development and adoption of the various energy resources to 2030 are outlined in the Australian Energy Resource Assessment .

Australia receives an average of 58 million PJ of solar radiation per year, approximately 10 000 times larger than its total energy consumption. However, Australia’s current use of solar energy is low with solar energy accounting for only about 0.1 per cent of Australia’s total primary energy consumption. The most common use of solar energy is solar thermal water heating. Solar PV systems play an important role in off-grid electricity generation in remote areas. 

Electricity generation is increasing in response to government policies, notably the Renewable Energy Target, and as a consequence of the development of photovoltaic and concentrating solar thermal technologies through substantial research and development programs. These include the government’s Clean Energy Initiative Solar Flagships Program managed by the Department of Resources Energy and Tourism which has committed $1.5 billion to support the construction and demonstration of up to four large-scale solar power plants in Australia, using solar thermal and PV technologies. The Government’s aim is to establish up to 1000 megawatts (MW) of solar power generation capacity.

Geoscience Australia is contributing to this program by providing pre-competitive solar resource prospectivity data and analysis to assist the solar industry and research community. The first steps in this project were to improve the collection of solar insolation data through a collaboration project with the Bureau of Meteorology, to increase their solar monitoring ground station network, and to improve the satellite models base used in collaboration with those ground stations.

The outcome is the development of the Australian Solar Energy Information System (ASEIS): a pre-competitive solar resource data product that is to assist regional analysis of areas suitable for large scale solar power production. The Australian Solar Energy Information System will also be an interactive web mapping site available in the first half of 2013 (ASEISOnline), but is currently available as a USB drive of data available through Geoscience Australia Sales Centre.

For people interested in solar ground station sites across Australia, you can view a map and information on some of the active solar ground stations currently collecting insolation data across Australia.