Solar lessons from Korea

An artist’s impression of the Juniper Group’s "Soul" development on the Gold Coast.
An artist’s impression of the Juniper Group’s "Soul" development on the Gold Coast.

John Mathews

Professor of Strategic Management at Macquarie Graduate School of Management

I am here in Seoul, the burgeoning and confident capital of a burgeoning and confident Korea, to investigate the country's formidable "Green Growth" strategy.

Back in August 2008, the Korean government, under its president Lee Myung-Bak, declared green technologies to be the source of a new "growth engine" for the Korean economy.

Since then the country has:

  • created a new energy R&D coordination body, backed by a budget of $1 billion
  • set a goal of building the world's first "smart grid" national system by 2030, and is well into a full-scale pilot project to test technologies on the southern island of Jeju
  • backed new concepts like electric vehicles powered by lithium-ion polymer batteries, which adjust their shape to the space available and provide continuous low-cost energy
  • pushed hard on a range of renewable and low-carbon technologies, including the country's own Advanced Power Reactor (APR) nuclear reactors.

Oh, and it is streamlining investment into the new green sectors, that so far run to financing of nearly $50 billion. That's billion, not million - compared with Australia's much-touted Solar Flagship program which is funded at the level of millions.

Korea doesn't do things by half - as it showed by its amazing industrial development through the 1960s and 70s; and then by its equally amazing recovery from the 1997 Asian financial crisis, ahead of all its competitors. Now it views green technology as the next industrial revolution, and it is pursuing serious strategies to get off its fossil fuel economy to a clean energy economy. This is viewed as good for Korea as a country (energy security) but also as an export platform for the 21st century.

I was struck by the depth and seriousness of the Korean commitment to transform its largely fossil-fuelled industrial economy in the space of just a couple of decades, and create a renewable technology export powerhouse for the next century.

When I was giving a talk to the Presidential Commission on Green Growth last week, one item came up that had the room jumping. I mentioned concentrated solar power as the technology which is going to prove the game changer in renewable energy. It can generate energy at scale, on land not being used for any other purpose, and (if utilising molten salt technology) continuously, 24 hours a day.

The audience at the PCGG seminar jumped in, all talking at once. They wanted to know where the leaders of this new approach to generating solar energy were to be found. I had to admit that the leaders were in Spain and Italy. I mentioned Australia's "solar dish" CSP technology, and said that it too was a contender.

All interest then focused on the solar dish idea, as a means of generating very high industrial temperatures and continuous electric power through a "big dish" that concentrates the sun over 2000 times onto a small energy converter containing molten salts. If the Koreans are so interested in the idea, and how to access such technology, then you know it's a winner.

And the Korean approach will be - mark my words - to turn the solar dish concept into a central component of their new green growth industrial strategy. They will be expected to acquire rights to the technology, and then adapt it through the intervention of Hyundai or LG or Samsung (the Korean innovation champions). They will mass produce the dishes in the thousands and then promote use of the technology throughout the world, providing all the components and materials from Korean sources.

The contrast with our approach in Australia could not be more stark. So far, we have seen two major solar technologies starved of funds and shipped offshore. There was thin-film solar photovoltaic technology, developed at the University of NSW under Professor Martin Green, that became a political football and a casualty of NSW state politics (when Bob Carr was premier). It was eventually sold off to Germany.

Along the way a young Chinese PhD student picked up the rudiments of the technology and built his own company in Wuxi, China. This has now grown into Suntech Power, the world's largest producer of solar PV panels, and has made Dr Zhengrong Shi one of the richest men in China.

The other was a CSP technology utilising an array of Fresnel mirrors tracking the sun in highly efficient form, developed by Sydney University's Professor David Mills. Again he could not get funding and moved to California where he set up Ausra, a very successful solar power generating company (and now on-sold to French nuclear giant Areva).

Now Australia has a third breakthrough solar technology, this time in the form of a big dish solar reflector that can focus the sun's rays and concentrate them 2000 times. It creates industrial scale temperatures over 1000 degrees centigrade in a molten salt fluid held under pressure, and generates electric power by turning water into steam through heat exchange with the molten salts.

The Solar Thermal research group at ANU in Canberra developed the concept; they built the first prototype; and now they have built a second generation big dish that is the world's largest such device and a contender to be one of the world's most important renewable energy candidates. It could be deployed in deserts as very large-scale clean power producer connected to the grid. In industrial areas it could generate very high temperatures capable of fusing glass, metal - and in building future big dish power systems, so creating a totally renewable energy powered industrial system. When used with molten salts - as in WizardEnergy's SUMO model - it can generate power 24 hours a day, thus overcoming the principal objection to scaling up solar power systems.

But the big dish was by-passed in the Federal Government's Solar Flagships program. The claim that it was not "commercially ready" is directly contradicted by the creation of the Solar Oasis consortium that is now building a 40 MW big dish solar power generator at Whyalla, in South Australia.

Federal Government support has been minimal. You won't find a mention of the big dish in a search of the Department of Energy, Industry and Resources website more recent than 2010. The breakthrough technology is routinely ignored in speeches from government ministers. A company was formed years ago to license the ANU technology and is possibly looking to sell this Australian treasure overseas to the highest bidder. The most recent Federal Government grant, to help the Whyalla Solar Oasis project get started, is limited to $60 million - as compared to the billions that would be made available elsewhere to drive such a promising new venture.

Sorry to end this postcard on a negative note. While we fiddle with tiny grants, the rest of the world - led by countries like Korea and China - is moving swiftly to rebuild their energy systems around renewables. Here is the business opportunity of the century, and Australia is in the box seat to provide technology and power for the world.

But we are consumed with fruitless debates over a carbon tax from which our biggest carbon exporters will be exempted, while precious national assets in renewable energy like the big dish solar power generator are neglected. Here we have a knowledge resource that we as a country have created, and it will long outlast the resources that we dig out of the ground. Isn't it time that as a country we woke up?

Read more of John's analysis at theconversation.edu.au

Topics:  green industry, solar power, south korea, sustainable industry



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