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By the Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics (ACAP)

In a recent announcement by Federal Energy Minister, Chris Bowen, ARENA will fund an extension of the Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics (ACAP). Final negotiations are in process on the research program and partnerships, with work expected to start in 2023. Here, ACAP outlines breakthroughs in solar technologies, what the next generation of photovoltaic technologies looks like, and the role this plays in grid overhaul.

The program of work for the ACAP extension is framed around ARENA’s 30-30-30 targets, for 30 per cent module efficiencies, 30c/Wp systems costs by 2030. Together, these targets contribute to the economic stretch target of a low cost of energy of $15/MWhr for energy from solar. This will enable green manufacturing and support a hydrogen export market.

ACAP will be focusing on achieving these 30 per cent efficiencies with new and emerging solar cell technologies. ACAP will also be addressing issues of manufacturability, including local content and sustainability, and design for recycling and recycling technologies.

An important output, historically and in the new program of work, will be trained engineers and innovators to work with industry to deliver on the energy transition. ACAP is the Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics (PV), a national centre for solar PV research led by UNSW, in partnership with ANU, CSIRO, the University of Melbourne, University of Queensland and Monash University.

ACAP started with this group in 2013, in partnerships with industry and international research institutions to work together on the next generation of photovoltaic technologies to be deployed in Australia and globally.

The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) provides significant funding for the work of ACAP, and in 2022, renewed its support for another eight years. With the extension comes new partnerships with the University of Sydney and the addition of CSIRO-Energy to complement the activities of CSIRO-Manufacturing.

Cell technologies have historically been the great research strength of ACAP, and we’re excited to be continuing our world-leading work in the field. The cells currently in panels that you see now have efficiencies of somewhere between 21 and 25 per cent. The aim is to drive those cell efficiencies up and keep the price pressure on the technologies to make solar even more affordable than it already is.

To achieve these higher cell efficiencies, we have ongoing research into new kinds of materials for solar cells, as well as the design of cells and panels themselves. These two elements, new materials and cell and panel design, are at the forefront of where new performance breakthroughs in solar cell technologies are happening.

Tandem cells, which capture more of the light spectrum, and new materials like perovskites and adamantine that absorb light in parts of the spectrum that complement silicon, are big areas of interest to us. We’re confident that continued work on these technologies will bring us to 30 per cent efficient cells by 2030, if we really back ourselves.

Manufacturing in Australia

In regards to manufacturing, what we have seen historically is that the technologies are developed in Australia, and the manufacturing is done elsewhere. The PERC cell, which was invented at UNSW and is now in 90 per cent of all solar panels on earth, has been taken to scale in manufacturing successfully internationally, most successfully in China.

However, as the world moves to focus on a reality where up to 50 per cent of the world’s energy is going to come from solar photovoltaics, we will need to coordinate investment to diversify supply, while keeping the price pressures down.

We are looking at where Australia can contribute in the international solar supply chain, and we are working with industry partners who are ready to engage in securing solar for their long-term strategies, helping them make technology-informed investment decisions.

These are very big opportunities for Australian technology development in support of local manufacturing. Early indicators are that Australia has a role to play in the early-stage silicon refining part of the solar panel manufacturing chain, particularly as we increase the renewable energy content of the manufacturing, to make green-silicon.

We continue to lead in cell-innovation, including with our partners, Australian company SunDrive, who are setting world records for manufacturing compatible processes. In the last stage of manufacturing, the module assembly phase, we are working with partners Tindo and the Australian Photovoltaic Institute (and others, yet to be confirmed) on opportunities to develop local manufacturing of input materials in support of module assembly.

Australia could produce the glass, the aluminium and the polymer encapsulants of solar panels. There is a significant opportunity for Australia to contribute to local and international supply chains for solar panel manufacturing. We’re working with our partners to support technical and financial modelling of these opportunities.

Deployment and innovation opportunities

Beyond the cell technology and cell and panel manufacturing opportunities, we also look to innovation in performance with our partners at RayGen, in new applications with BlueScope Steel, in deployment with our partners 5B. We also look at the significant opportunity in Sun Cable’s plan to deliver the world’s largest solar farm, generating energy in Australia, to then export into Southeast Asia.

We also take the same deep knowledge around cell technology and convert it across the supply chain in quality control, performance assessment and monitoring to yield innovation, technology development and commercialisation opportunities. Our partners BTimaging, PV Lighthouse, OpenInstruments and SolarVision add value locally and internationally in manufacturing and in large scale field deployments. We ensure performance, to lower technology and project risk and to ensure return on investment.

The Solar Industrial Research Facility at UNSW, Sydney. Images courtesy of ARENA.

Thinking sustainability for the future

Importantly, we focus on sustainability and in the recycling of panels once they reach the end of the 25-30 year lifecycle. We’re very conscious of looking forward and planning for a robust increase in the amount of solar panels needed in order to shift energy generation to meet international zero emissions targets.

With long lifetimes for solar panels, we don’t yet have a pressing issue with recycling, but we’re working on solutions for when the volumes are large enough to build a recovery-industry around recycling. We don’t want to repeat the off-shoring of recycling that has been seen in other sectors. We need to build an industry locally. Solutions being considered include solving the challenges of recovery logistics, and technologies for recycling.

On material sustainability, we have a worldwide 200GW a year market for solar now, and we are going to need to get that to more than double, and double again, to reach a terawatt for solar to deliver 50 per cent of current global energy needs. Sustainability is important.

At 200GW, solar panel manufacture uses around ten per cent of the world’s silver in its cells. So, if we’re going to go fivefold, we have to do something different in the way we make the technology. With a long history in cell development, we are working with partners, including SunDrive, to look at how best to replace silver with more abundant materials, while maintaining performance and long lifetimes, and downward pressure on price.

The team at ACAP sees solar PV as disruptive – and really only just beginning. We expect tenfold growth in deployment over ten years. That will demand the innovation, expertise and the resources that ACAP can deliver.

Delivering on the 30-30-30 targets will support the economic stretch target of a low cost of energy of $15/MWhr for energy from solar that will in turn create opportunities for Australia in manufacturing, in the hydrogen economy and in minerals processing. This is a truly exciting time for the solar innovation sector in Australia, and we thank our supporters and partners in making it a reality that will carry us all into a clean and sustainable energy future.

For more information on projects and partnerships, please contact Professor Renate Egan at r.egan@unsw.edu.au.

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