The Energy Innovators: A solar boost to the mining industry

Could the rise of renewables be good for Australia’s resources sector?

According to Martin Green, head of the Australian Centre of Advanced Photovoltaics based at UNSW, there’s a strong economic case to say that the two aren’t necessarily incompatible.

As part of a series of lightning talks by leading thinkers in renewable energy presented at ARENA’s Innovating Energy Summit, Green told a packed audience that there was enough opportunity in mining coking coal, iron ore, alumna and copper – ingredients essential for the manufacture of photovoltaic cells – to offset a reduction in mining thermal coal “five times over”.

Scroll down to the end of this article for an in-depth Q&A session he had with ARENA’s own Phil Cohn.


Green looked at the potential impact that installing one terawatt of solar PV would have on the globe’s CO2 emissions. By the mid-2020s, he said, it would match the reduction needed to keep global temperature rises below 2 degrees.

“I don’t think there’s anything else that’s likely to happen that will have such an impact on that time scale,”

However he estimated that one terawatt of solar PV would result in a 10 percent reduction in Australia’s coal production, about $1.5 billion worth. And while this may be “good news for the rest of the world but bad news for Australia”, it would also create new markets for other materials that Australia was rich with.

He said 56 million tonnes of steel would be needed to build 1 TW of photovoltaics – equivalent to 60 million tonnes extra of coking coal, or $1.2 billion in increased earnings.

Similar increases could be seen in iron ore, aluminium and copper.

“I still haven’t scratched the surface: there are other resources like silver, lithium, cobalt, nickel that are likely to be important in a solar powered future,” he said.

Australian impact on the solar PV sector has been significant with major technological advancements, such as the first cell to reach 20 percent efficiency, emerging from the UNSW lab.

Suntech founder Dr Zhengrong Shi, China’s first “solar billionaire”, came from the same team and the UNSW researchers he worked with have gone on to establish three other solar companies in China, Green said.

ARENA recently announced a major $29.22 million investment in 20 projects across some of the top solar research labs in the country, including UNSW.

Green and his team are looking at ways to increase cell efficiency by layering a new form of adamantine compound over silicon solar cells. It’s advances like these that make Australia a world-leader in solar technology.

“Solar PV is now the cheapest way of generating electricity, soon to be even cheaper,” Green said. “The higher the uptake of solar worldwide the better it is for Australian industry.”

This article was originally written by Dewi Cooke, Writer.