UNSW solar pioneer Prof Martin Green foresees PV as #1 energy source globally by 2050

A world-leading Australian solar PV researcher has predicted that the cost of photovoltaic technology will fall by another 50 per cent over the next decade, making it a game-changing energy technology – and one of the world’s cheapest.

Martin Green, Scientia Professor at the University of New South Wales told a conference in Sydney on Wednesday that it seemed clear solar PV would be the cheapest form of electricity across the world by 2030, and that solar – as predicted by the International Energy Agency – would become the single biggest energy source by 2050.

“What will happen now, and we are starting to see it already, is that the world’s energy systems will start to evolve to adapt to this new technology,” he said.

Green and his UNSW team have led the world in silicon cell efficiency since 1983, paving the way for the solar panels we now put on our homes. It is because of this work he was dubbed “the father of photovoltaics.”

His comments come as the Abbott government, and the Australian coal industry, insist that coal-fired generation will continue to dominate energy systems “for decades to come”.

But Green says coal will not match solar on costs, particularly if it has to – as it needs to – curb its CO2 emissions.

Citing a study completed in Germany a decade ago which predicted that solar PV would provide at least 25 per cent of global final energy demand by 2050, Green said it now looked lie that “very bold projection” would be exceeded.

Solar’s level of deployment is seven years ahead of forecast, he said, and the cost of solar PV has been reduced seven-fold since 2008, far quicker than expected.

“Things that seemed impossible so far in the future are now doable and feasible,” Green said. “And that is not generally recognized.”

Green says cost reductions will come through gains in manufacturing techniques, and also by improvements in technology.

“This technology is steadily evolving. Each year there is an announcement of an efficiency improvement. But there is also a very robust technology pipeline.”

Commercial module efficiency will likely double from its current level of 15-21 per cent. Indeed, Green told the conference that his own research team at UNSW is currently in the process of confirming a new cell lens efficiency record of more than 40 per cent.

Green said it was wrong to assume that coal needed to remain the dominant energy source, or that the current energy system built around “base load” and “peaking” plants would be the design of the future. It was not, he said, as efficient as people believed.

He also cast doubt on the future role of carbon capture and storage, saying there will too many issues, still, and it was too expensive. 

“We are talking about PV producing electricity at a lower cost than present coal, not coal plus sequestration. I can’t see that taking off.”

And what about coal continuing without carbon abatement?

“You need to stop that happening. And I think that will become the universally held view over the coming decade.”

Top image: Professor Martin Green, via UNSW

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Giles Parkinson