Solar power results from the conversion of sunlight to electricity. A common form of solar power generation is done using photovoltaics (PV), this is how most solar panels operate. Large scale solar power operations can use a form of concentrated solar power that uses lenses or mirrors to concentrate sunlight into a small area.
First Uses of Solar Power
Solar power was first used in space applications. In 1958 the Vanguard 1 satellite used six small solar cells to generate electricity to allow it to continue transmitting after its chemical battery was emptied. its small suite of instruments provided valuable information on Earth’s temperature ranges, size, shape and air density.
The success of Vanguard 1’s use of solar power resulted in solar cells being used by Russian and American satellites. By the late 1960s photovoltaics had become a standard source of power for satellites.
Increasing production of photovoltaic solar panels in the 1970s led to the early adaptation of solar power in off grid locations like mines, oil rigs, marine and telecommunication applications.
Today solar energy is becoming more prevalent as fossil fuels are becoming less viable and pressure is on to explore renewable energy sources. One of the biggest setbacks with solar energy is the initial high costs of installation but as research and development is continuing these costs will drop and solar energy applications will continue to increase.
At the turn of 2010 solar photovoltaics are generating power in over 100 countries and the technology is being established as the fastest growing renewable power generation in the world.
Solar Power in Australia
Despite Australia’s hot, dry and open expanses of sundrenched land solar photovoltaic power is only contributing approximately 0.1 – 0.2% of overall power generation (as of June 2009). This is mainly attributed to the high cost of solar panels and results in a higher cost per Kilowatt when compared to other energy sources.
To increase the adaptation of Solar energy the Australian Government provides feed in tarriff incentives for households to install solar panels to offset their electricity and sell extra power generated from their panels back into the grid. While the feed in tarriff scheme is designed to encourage households to install solar panels and offset their electricty use it has been under scrutiny for not providing a good enough financial incentive to make the switch to solar. Currently there isn’t a standardised national price that is paid for household solar PV generated electricity – this is set at the state level.
Commercial Solar Power in Australia
Commercial solar power stations in Australia are yet to be implemented on a large scale but there are small solar energy stations already in operation. Queensland’s first solar farm was opened in at Windorah in 2009 with the intention of cutting the town’s reliance on diesel fuel generated power. This small scale project uses five large mirrored dishes, that are nearly 14 metres in diameter, to concentrate sunlight onto a panel of photovoltaic cells.
There are different options evolving for large scale commercial solar power that are being researched, developed and implemented that can incorporate thermal, sunlight concentration, tower and steam features.
Australia’s largest solar power station is currently under development. The Mildura Solar Concentrator Power Station is expected to deliver enough power to provide electricity for 60000 homes through its dish concentrator system. The Mildura Solar Concentrator Power Station is due for completion by 2015 but is still reliant on federal funding.
Creative Use of Solar Power Technology
One important aspect of solar power is its ability to be adapted on a small scale in innovative ways. For example in June 2007 a solar noise barrier on a freeway near Essendon Airport, Melbourne was constructed. The project consists of 500 metres of vertical solar photovoltaic panels and the output can peak at 24 kW. This unique project works on 2 levels by reducing noise produced by cars and generating electricity.
In 2006 Ballarat University installed the largest vertical north facing Building Integrated Photovoltaic facade in Australia and won the 2007 Australian Business Council for Sustainable Energy award for Excellence in Designing and installing a Grid-Connect Photovoltaic Energy System over 5kW. The wall covers 200 square meters of area and produces 7.3 MWh of electricty per year. Like the noise barrier constucted near Essendon Airport in Melbourne the facade at Ballarat University also works on another level by providing excellent thermal properties and reducing the airconditioning usage inside the building by reflecting solar radiation.
Solar power technology is definately in the early stages of research, development and adaptation in Australia but perhaps the future of solar power technology is through small scale innovative uses in combination with the large scale setup of commercial operations?