UNSW has welcomed the decision to spare ARENA from dramatic funding cuts, which will allow it to continue to support critical Australian research into new renewable energy and storage technologies.
ARENA was facing an uncertain future after the federal government proposed cutting the agency’s funding by $1.3 billion as part of the “omnibus bill” of budget reforms currently before parliament. This prompted intense lobbying from Australia’s renewable energy research leaders, including UNSW’s Dr Richard Corkish and Scientia Professor Martin Green. They were among 190 signatories to an open letter to the government in defence of the agency.
Under the compromise deal struck this week, ARENA will now receive $800 million over the next five years.
UNSW Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Les Field said the announcement was a lifeline for the University’s world-leading renewable energy research programs.
“It also means that the international excellence in solar energy research, the expertise, facilities and corporate knowledge that UNSW has built up over the past 40 years, by research leaders such as Scientia Professor Martin Green, is not likely to be completely compromised,” Professor Field said.
As at June 2015, ARENA had invested over $500 million across more than 100 projects using solar photovolatics (PV), including $9.6 million to UNSW for three large PV projects.
The importance of supporting early-stage renewable energy technologies was highlighted in May this year when UNSW announced that a new solar cell configuration developed by its engineers had pushed the sunlight-to-electricity conversion efficiency to 34.5%. The milestone established a new world record for unfocused sunlight and nudged us closer to the theoretical limits for the performance such PV devices. The research was supported by a $1.4 million grant from ARENA.
Professor Darren Bagnall, Head of the School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering at UNSW, said he was pleased that Labor and the Government had taken a bipartisan approach to reach the compromise deal, and not gone down the path of complete defunding.
“However, as the independent board that oversees grants from ARENA will now be required to reassesses its priorities for future grant funding, it is crucial that the focus remains on supporting the early and pre-commercialisation stages of renewable energy research,” Professor Bagnall said.
According to Dr Corkish and the Australian National University’s Professor Andrew Blakers in a piece published in The Conversation, “It is important for ARENA to provide strong support at the grassroots level; help universities support undergraduate, postgraduate and postdoctoral training as well as research itself”.
Dr Corkish explained that research leads to lower cost/energy solar cells and modules, which reduces associated balance-of-system costs, which in turn makes systems cheaper for grid integration and for remote areas.