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Solar unlocking the secrets of space

Solar panels are helping to unlock the secrets of the final frontier, as spacecraft tackle the most extreme environments powered by renewable energy.

NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity has hit the headlines in recent weeks after being knocked out of action by a giant dust storm.

The batteries onboard the ageing rover are charged by solar panels, but thick dust covering one-quarter of the red planet blotted out the sun and sent Opportunity into hibernation.

Opportunity rover. Photo: NASA

Since launching in 2003 and landing on Mars in 2004, Opportunity has relayed information about Martian rocks and soil back to Earth.

The rover’s Mars mission was initially planned to be just 90 days, but 15 years later the solar-powered survivor is still going strong and scientists hope it will bounce back into action when the dust settles in the coming weeks or months.

Although Opportunity has been sent to sleep by dust storms in the past, its battery levels are thought to be much lower this time. Scientists remain hopeful that it will awaken when the dust settles, and Mars’ warmer summer temperatures should protect the rover from freezing.

Solar celebrates 60th anniversary in space

2018 marks the 60th anniversary of solar power first entering orbit aboard Vanguard 1, a tiny US satellite launched in 1958.

The grapefruit sized Vanguard 1 was the fourth satellite sent into space and now holds the record for the oldest man-made item in orbit. Its battery powered predecessors Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2 reentered within a year of their launch, while its older American sibling Explorer 1 came back to Earth in 1970.

Vanguard 1. Photo: NASA

Vanguard 1’s six small solar cells powered a radio transmitter with around one watt of energy, lasting more than six years before the satellite’s signal was received for the final time by an Ecuadorian base in 1964.

Vanguard 1 proved the potential of solar in space, but also back on Earth.

The first solar cells became available commercially in the mid-1950s for around $300 for a single watt cell. The price was well beyond most people, but the technology found a market in the emerging space industry.

The game-changing little satellite’s legacy continues today, with the International Space Station’s four solar arrays generating as much as 120 killowatts of electricity.

Solar and space a perfect match

Taking around 90 minutes to circumnavigate Earth, satellites in low orbit are left in the dark for far shorter periods than our nights. This provides plenty of opportunity for solar cells to power the day-to-day operations on board, or recharge batteries for the times when they aren’t in sunlight.

The endless reserves of solar energy in space provide a reliable and durable supply of power, without the cost and complexity of transporting fuel from Earth. Getting payloads into space remains a significant challenge, NASA citing costs of around US$10,000 for every pound of weight launched into orbit.

Juno spacecraft and Jupiter.

Solar photovoltaics work well amongst the inner planets where there is plenty of solar radiation to make power, but become less efficient the further craft travel from the sun. NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter needed to be fitted with three bus-sized solar arrays to generate the required power.

Space power stations ‘technically feasible’

Free from cloudy weather, atmosphere or nights, space is so well suited to solar energy that extra-terrestrial power stations could one day beam renewable energy back to Earth.

It sounds like science-fiction, but scientists say the physics stack up – the main barrier is the prohibitive cost of launching the required components into space.

Wirelessly relaying the energy to receivers on Earth is already technically feasible through a network of orbiting laser or microwave transmitters.

With demand for renewable energy higher than ever before – and NASA working hard to lower the cost of launching of payloads into space – the far-fetched idea could become a reality within a decade if companies like California-based space solar aspirants Solaren can make the costs competitive with terrestrial generation.

Given the rate of progress since the early solar powered space missions, the sky clearly isn’t the limit.

Alongside skyrocketing efficiency, the costs of solar photovoltaics have plummeted.

From costing around $300 per watt for the first commercially available photovoltaic panel in the mid-1950s, to as low as 30 cents per watt today, the plummeting price of solar is transforming the terrestrial energy market.

In the past decade nearly 1.8 million Australian households have installed rooftop solar, while our domestic large-scale solar industry is taking flight with 30GW worth of projects seeking connection to the grid in Queensland alone.

‘Solar superman’ scoops Global Energy Prize

UNSW Scientia Professor Martin Green has become the first Australian to win the Global Energy Prize, beating Elon Musk to the prestigious $820,000 award.

Professor Green was honoured for having revolutionised the efficiency and costs of solar photovoltaics, making this the lowest cost option for bulk electricity supply.

ARENA CEO Ivor Frischknecht with Professor Martin Green

Australia’s ‘father of photovoltaics’ – or ‘solar superman’ – requires little introduction. He is director of the Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics at UNSW, and with his students has driven sharp reductions in costs of photovoltaic solar systems by establishing manufacturing centres in Asia.

The annual Global Energy Prize – which he will share with Russian scientist Sergey Alekseenko – honours outstanding achievements in research and technology that are addressing the world’s pressing energy challenges.

ARENA has been proud to fund some of Professor Martin Greens’ groundbreaking work, most recently awarding his University of New South Wales research unit $16.4 million when they took out 11 of the 20 successful projects in last year’s solar research funding round.

One of these projects is attempting to find a new form of adamantine compound that can be overlaid on top of silicon solar cells to create a more efficient cell. Professor Green is optimistic that the resulting “tandem cells” can break through the barrier of 25 per cent efficiency that limits most current cells.

Going back to 1989, Professor Greens’ team supplied the solar cells for the first photovoltaic system with an energy conversion efficiency of 20%. And in 2014, he headed the development team that first demonstrated the conversion of sunlight into electricity with an energy conversion efficiency of 40%.

Speaking at last year’s ARENA’s Innovating Energy Summit, Green told the audience that constructing one terrawatt of solar PV offers the best chance to keep global temperature rises below the 2 degrees pledged in the Paris climate accord.

Responding to the news that he had come out on top of the ten finalists – including Tesla founder Elon Musk – in the Global Energy Award, Professor Green said he was proud to receive the prize given the quality of candidates in the field.

“The efficiency of solar modules is an area whose progress has been faster than many experts expected, and this is good news.”

“We need to maintain the pace of research in Australia, not only to keep our international lead, but also to benefit society by providing a cheap, low carbon source of electricity,” he said.

Over his career Professor Green has received many scientific and industry awards. In 2003 he was awarded the Karl Boer Solar Energy Medal of Merit, and in 2004 he received the World Technology Award in the field of energy. He holds many patents and has authored eight books, as well as more than 750 publications.

Professor Green will be presented with the award in Russia in October.


Top End solar rollout enters next phase

For much of the year the Northern Territory is drenched in sunshine, yet almost all off-grid communities rely on diesel generators for their electricity.

Trucking diesel into off-grid townships isn’t straightforward. Vast distances, unsealed roads and heavy rainfalls during the wet season can make these journeys treacherous, not to mention expensive.

Fuel delivery to Gunbalunya

With funding from ARENA and the Northern Territory Government, the four-year Solar Energy Transformation Program (SETuP) project is bringing solar energy to 26 remote off-grid communities across the Northern Territory.

The roll out of the ambitious $59 million project begins its next phase – dubbed Tranche Two – this week. Tranche Two will deliver 5.6 MW of solar to 17 remote communities from Finke near the South Australian border right up to Arnhem Land and the Tiwi Islands in the Top End.

ARENA has provided $31.5 million of the $59 million total cost of the project, which will cut diesel use by 15 per cent, equivalent to 94 million litres over the life of the panels.

Tranche Two will include installing a 1MW of solar system on the Tiwi community Wurrumiyanga on Bathurst Island which will ultimately supply electricity to three Tiwi communities – including Wurrumiyanga, Pirlangimpi and Milikapiti – across Bathurst and Melville via a separate interconnection project.

The first stage Tranche One, which included an initial 10 off-grid Indigenous communities, was completed in 2017.


Late in 2017, Daly River, also known as Nauiyu, became the first Northern Territory community to be powered entirely by solar during daylight hours.

Daly River, with a population of over 400, was intended as a pilot for a high penetration renewable system, with a solar array alongside and a 0.8 MW / 2 MWh lithium-ion battery.

After being completed in April, Daly River is now replacing half its diesel consumption with solar and storage.

Local elder Mark Casey explained the significance of his township embracing the natural power source.

“It’s a part of our Aboriginal culture that it’s the giver of life, we always look to the sun,” he said.

“Now the sun will come down, shine on (the panels), power our houses, and take care of the everyday aspects of life.

“It’s there all the time, it doesn’t matter where you go. It’s looking after us that way.”

Daly River’s new PV setup has allowed the community to switch off generators during the day, saving 400,000 litres of diesel per year.


Until now the potential for renewable energy to power the Top End’s off-grid communities has been untapped.

The SETuP program builds a platform for renewables to launch from, growing the local industry and providing an evidence base to inform future rollouts.

Solar Setup NT

ARENA CEO Ivor Frischknecht said the agency was proud to support this project which is bringing renewable energy to off-grid locations.

“As the largest roll out of solar PV to remote communities, this is a significant achievement that is four years in the making and one that ARENA is extremely proud to be supporting,” Mr Frischknecht said.

“The project will reduce reliance on diesel, which is costly and subject to price volatility, creates job opportunities and provides renewable energy.

“Each community will be operationally and technically ready to plug in more solar and storage as costs of renewable technologies fall. Over time, this could lead to very high percentage renewable power, driven by the power cost of renewable energy,” he said.

Along with SETuP, ARENA has also funded a range of off-grid renewable energy projects helping to reduce remote communities reliance on diesel – including Coober Pedy’s hybrid renewable energy project and microgrids in islands Australia-wide.

Power and Water Chief Executive Michael Thomson says the corporation is delighted to partner with ARENA and the Northern Territory Government on this important project.

“This demonstrates how delivery of cost effective, renewable energy may be employed to provide reliable power to remote communities, where both energy demand and costs are high,” says Mr Thomson.

“Reducing our reliance on diesel fuel in remote locations makes economic and environmental sense,” he said.


Solar rolling out in Northern Territory off-grid communities

Remote communities from the Tiwi Islands to the South Australian border are set to be connected to solar power as construction begins on the next phase of the $59 million Solar Energy Transformation Program (SETuP) project.

On behalf of the Australian Government, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) previously announced $31.5 million in funding towards SETuP, jointly funded by the Northern Territory (NT) Government and managed by Power and Water Corporation (PWC).

Tranche Two, which is commencing construction this month and is expected to be completed by November this year, will see 5.6 MW of solar PV rolled out to a further 17 communities across the Territory from Finke near the South Australian border to the Tiwi Islands.

Solar PV will be integrated with diesel generators at 15 sites including a 1 MW solar system at the Tiwi Island community of Wurrumiyanga which will ultimately supply electricity to three communities on Bathurst and Melville Islands, via an interconnection project.

On completion of Tranche Two, the SETuP program will provide 10 MW of solar photovoltaic power into the energy mix of 28 remote off-grid communities across the NT.

Last year, Tranche One involved successfully integrating 3.325 MW of solar PV into diesel power systems in an initial 10 remote Indigenous communities.

In April, alongside Tranche One, Daly River also became the first Northern Territory remote community to pilot be partially powered by solar and battery, as a 2MWh lithium-ion battery with a 0.8 MW peak output was installed alongside 3,200 solar panels. Daly River, with 50% of its energy from solar, is a demonstration of what is possible for the other communities to achieve in coming years.

ARENA CEO Ivor Frischknecht said Tranche Two would complete the roll out of this ambitious project to bring renewable energy to off grid and off shore communities.

“As the largest roll out of solar PV to remote communities, this is a significant achievement that is four years in the making and one that ARENA is extremely proud to be supporting,” Mr Frischknecht said.

“This project will reduce the reliance on diesel which is costly and subject to price volatility, creates job opportunities in remote communities and provides renewable energy which can be expanded in the future. Each community will be operationally and technically ready to plug in more solar and storage as costs of renewable technologies fall. Over time, this could lead to very high percentage renewable power, driven by the lower cost of renewable energy,” he said.

Power and Water Chief Executive Michael Thomson said: “This project demonstrates how delivery of cost-effective, renewable energy may be employed to provide reliable power to remote communities, where both energy demand and costs are high.”

“Reducing our reliance on diesel fuel in remote locations makes economic and environmental sense. As these hybrid systems combine existing Power and Water assets with clean technologies, we are able to ensure service remains consistent while making a 15 per cent saving on diesel fuel.”

ARENA media contact:

0410 724 227 |

Download this media release (PDF 124KB)


Solar booming in the Sunshine State

LONGREACH, 430 kilometres from Rockhampton in the heart of central western Queensland, this week became the latest town to join the solar energy boom underway in the aptly named Sunshine State.

Sitting on the Tropic of Capricorn on the Thomson River with a population of over 3000, Longreach is famous for being the birthplace of Qantas.

Fifteen kilometres out of town sits the $29 million Longreach Solar Farm which this week officially opened.

The 15MW solar farm comprises 54,000 photovoltaic single tracking panels capable of powering 5000 homes with renewable energy. The project is being progressively commissioned and is operating at 50 per cent capacity, exporting 7 MW to the grid already.

Longreach is the second large scale solar farm to be officially opened from ARENA’s $92 million competitive round, and the first in Queensland.

The project, which was planned and managed by renewable energy giant Canadian Solar, received $1.3 million in funding from ARENA.

All 12 ARENA-supported solar farms are now either completed or under construction and expected to open this year, where they will collectively deliver 450MW of solar energy across three states.

Six of the 12 are in Queensland.

With the competitive round having driven down costs, the large scale solar industry has now taken off.

According to AEMO, there is now more than 10 GWs of utility scale solar in the connection pipeline.

Nowhere is the boom in large scale solar more evident than in Queensland.

According to Powerlink, there are 150 potential projects that have sought connection to the grid, totalling a staggering 30 GW of generation.

Nearly half of all activity in large scale solar is taking place in Queensland, according to the latest figures from the Clean Energy Council.

Just over a 1000 kilometres away from Longreach, Canadian Solar is working on the second stage of its 80MW Oakey solar farm near Toowoomba, the first 25MW stage of which was also funded by ARENA under the competitive round.

Four hours’ drive away near Emerald, Fotowatio Renewable Ventures (FRV) is busy constructing the 100MW Lilyvale Solar Farm. This week, FRV’s 100MW Clare Solar Farm outside of Townsville – the state’s largest so far – was connected to the grid.

A further five solar farms are either under construction or planned for the former mining town of Collinsville, which has been dubbed the state’s “solar hot spot” for its 300-plus sunny days a year.

The surge in construction is creating thousands of new jobs for the state.

At the last count, 6800 people were working in Queensland’s wind and solar industries, which is the most of any state.

Queensland’s renewable energy workforce more than doubled in size during 2017 alone.

A total of $4.2 billion worth of large scale renewable energy projects either under construction or committed, which are expected to add 2000 MW of power and provide 3500 construction jobs.

Rural communities are among the big winners.

Sheep and cattle farmer James Walker is the landholder of the Longreach solar farm.

Mr Walker said are already having a big impact on his patch of western Queensland.

“I became Queensland Farmer of the Year for diversification,” Mr Walker said.

“From being unemployed to becoming fly-in-fly out workers, it’s really amazing.”

ARENA CEO Mr Ivor Frischknecht said the completion of the 12 ARENA-funded solar farms which kickstarted the industry is a milestone for renewable energy in Australia.

“Before ARENA’s investment, we didn’t have the local expertise and experience to get these projects off the ground at a competitive price,” he said.

“The costs of solar and wind have come down even faster than we thought and are now the cheapest form of new generation available.”


Solar Gardens set to blossom in Australia

Solar gardens, that allow you to own rooftop solar even if you don’t own your own roof, could bring  the benefits of renewable energy to Australian households that until now have been shut out of the market.

Solar gardens are solar arrays in which consumers can purchase a share, with the electricity generated credited to their power bills.

Solar gardens make solar power available to those who cannot install their own solar PV panels, such as renters, apartment dwellers, low-income households or those restricted by issues such as roof orientation, heritage listing or structural concerns.

IMAGE: Thank you to the Lismore Workers Club for allowing the use of the above photo.

The concept is already is popular in the US but is as yet, unexplored in Australia.

Now, the Institute of Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney and the Consumer Power Agency are running a feasibility study to explore the potential for solar gardens to be introduced in Australia.

The $550,000 feasibility study will be trialled at five locations  in Blacktown in western Sydney, Shoalhaven on the New South Wales’ south coast and Byron Bay, Swan Hill in north western Victoria and Townsville in Far North Queensland.

This will the first of initiative of its kind to involve Australian customers who are also investors, receiving their returns through savings on their electricity bills.

On behalf of the Australian Government, ARENA is contributing $215,000 to fund the study which will also involve councils, energy retailers, welfare organisations and community power agencies.


While Australia has an advanced behind-the-meter solar PV industry with nearly 1.8 million households owning rooftop solar and a growing utility-scale market, it has no operating solar gardens. However in the US, they constitute the fastest-growing segment of the solar energy market.

Their key innovation is the on-bill credit provided by the energy retailer, which offsets individual customers’ consumption against the power generation of a grid-connected solar farm on a time-of-use basis.


The Social Access Solar Gardens study is being conducted by ISFtogether with a consortium of electricity retailers including Energy Queensland, Powershop and Enova.

It builds on work previously undertaken by the ISF on another ARENA-funded project, Facilitating Local Network Charges and Virtual Net Metering, which explored the potential impact of reduced local network charges for partial use of the electricity network, and the conditions required to support Local Electricity Trading.


ISF research associate Nicky Ison said solar gardens promised to share the advantages of renewable energy with consumers who until now had been excluded from the sector.

“At least 30 per cent of Australian households can’t currently benefit from rooftop solar,’’ said Ms Ison.

“We think that changing that not only makes the transition to clean energy fairer, but also faster, unlocking new models and new customers to grow the renewable energy sector in Australia.’’

ARENA CEO Ivor Frischknecht said solar gardens have been popular in the US, with the fast-growing market seeing more than 200 MW of solar gardens already in operation.

“We’re excited to be supporting the feasibility into such a relatively new and forward-thinking concept that will help to include and allow people from all socioeconomic backgrounds to have access to renewable energy,” Mr Frischknecht said.

Visit the UTS ISF website for more information on the Solar Gardens project.


Monash University Polymer PV Study

Social Access Solar Gardens

Solar gardens to bring rooftop solar to all Australians

The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) has today announced funding for a feasibility study that could allow the third of Australians who rent, live in apartments or live in low income housing to access the benefits of rooftop solar.

On behalf of the Australian Government, ARENA is providing $240,000 to the University of Technology Sydney’s Institute of Sustainable Futures (ISF) to undertake a feasibility study on ‘solar gardens’, a popular concept in the United States that is yet to be introduced in Australia.

A solar garden is a centralised solar array that offers consumers the opportunity to purchase or lease solar panels with the electricity generated credited to the customer’s energy bill. This provides an innovative solution to accessing renewable energy for those who are unable to place solar on their homes.

The $555,000 project brings together energy retailers, councils, community energy agencies and social welfare organisation and the NSW Government to examine the viability of a solar garden in five potential locations – Blacktown in western Sydney, Swan Hill in northwest Victoria, Townsville in North Queensland, Shoalhaven and Byron Bay in New South Wales.

The study aims to consider both consumer demand and feasibility, and identify barriers to adoption.

ARENA CEO Ivor Frischknecht said initiatives such as this are an important step in giving the consumer more options when it comes to their energy bills.

“Solar gardens have been popular in the US, with the fast growing market seeing 200 MW of shared solar gardens already in operation.”

“Almost a third of Australians are unable to put solar on their roofs because they are renting, live in apartments or live in low income housing. Solar gardens give consumers the benefits of rooftop solar, even if you don’t have a roof available to put it on,” Mr Frischknecht said.

“We’re excited to be supporting the feasibility into a concept that will allow people from all backgrounds and living circumstances to benefit from renewable energy,” he said.

“While over 1.8 million households now enjoy the benefits of cheap solar power, unfortunately not every household owns a sunny roof suitable for solar panels,” said ISF Research Associate and Director of Community Power Agency Nicky Ison.

NSW Minister for Energy and Utilities Don Harwin said: “We’re excited to be supporting the Social Access Solar Gardens trials because we know that local renewable energy can help consumers save money on their energy bills.

“These trials will help renters, and people in apartments and low-income households who are currently missing out on the benefits of rooftop solar to share in the renewable energy boom currently underway in [NSW].”

The project builds on previous work undertaken by ISF in the ARENA funded project Facilitating Local Network Charges and Virtual Net Metering which explored the theoretical impact of reduced local network charges for partial use of the electricity network, and the conditions required to support local electricity trading.

Primary project funders
NSW Government

Project partners
Bendigo Sustainability Group
Blacktown Council
Brotherhood of St Laurence
Byron Shire Council
Community Owned Renewable Energy Mullumbimbi (COREM)
Community Power Agency
Energy Queensland
Enova Community Energy
Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney
Norton Rose Fullbright
Queensland Council of Social Services
Repower Shoalhaven
Shoalhaven Council
Swan Hill Shire Council

ARENA media contact:

0410 724 227 |

Download this media release (PDF 136KB)

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