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Australia not living up to solar potential

SYDNEY, Feb. 9 (UPI) -- Australia missed the opportunity to become a pioneer in solar power, experts say.

Australia Solar Energy Society Chairman John Grimes says government decisions to keep Australia locked into coal-fired power killed its early potential to build a leading solar industry, according to an article in the Brisbane Courier-Mail.

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As early as 1974, a summary of global solar research recognized Australia for the University of Queensland's research, notably its study on large-scale solar electricity generation.

"Our golden opportunity was in the '70s," Grimes told the newspaper. "We led all solar fields but we squandered it."

Grimes said Australia is posed to remain the "sleeping Goliath" of solar energy unless the government "wakes up." He said Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's government, by its actions, indicates it aims to keep Australia locked into using coal and gas for the vast bulk of electricity and to protect its coal and gas exports at the expense of new clean energy

Grimes said Energy Minister Martin Ferguson is clearly no fan of solar and is focused on supporting coal by pushing unproven "clean coal" technology.

Coal-fired power stations, known for high carbon dioxide emissions, now generate about 80 percent of Australia's electricity. Australia surpasses the United States as the world's biggest per capita carbon emitter.

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In May Australia announced its $1.5 billion Solar Flagships program, which includes four solar thermal and solar photovoltaic installations totaling 1,000 megawatts in a single location. The program also allocated several billion to clean-coal projects.

While the clean coal funding is in the final stages of being allocated, the government has only started the first stage of the process for the solar program.

But the Solar Flagship program "is shaping up to be a failure," Matthew Wright, executive director of clean-energy lobby group Beyond Zero Emissions, said in a news release. Its guidelines are skewed to favor 1980s-style daytime-only solar plants rather than the newer standard of "base load" solar thermal storage plants now being built in Europe and the United States, said Wright.

"Australia has one of the best solar resources in the world. We have some of the best researchers, too. Yet the Rudd government remains in thrall to the coal lobby, investing in dead-end fantasies like clean coal while other countries develop their solar thermal expertise and manufacturing," said Wright.

Grimes of the Australia Solar Energy Society noted the country's solar sector has experienced wave after wave of a boom approach characterized by an administration giving support, only to be followed by an administration that would pull funding.

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He pointed to Germany's "strategic decision" to move into solar, creating 148,000 jobs in the sector and pivoting itself to one of the world's largest solar equipment manufacturers.

And Spain's "coherent policy approach" means it now has the largest solar energy generation capacity in the world, Grimes said. Its government is supporting solar thermal power with a serious feed-in tariff for large-scale plants. "We (Australia) should do the same," he said.

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