Australia has made a major advancement in the realm of sustainable energy. The University of New South Wales announced on 7 December that a project funded by The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) has successfully created a solar power system that can harness 40 per cent of the solar energy hitting the device – the highest efficiency ever reported in the realm of photovoltaic (PV) technology.

PV panels are just one method of harnessing the sun’s power – solar collectors, such as evacuated tube solar, are another option. But what does this breakthrough mean for the renewable energy sector in Australia, and what implications could it have for global energy policy?

40 per cent efficiency

ARENAs announcement is a major development for renewable energy. The cost of solar power is sometimes cited as a drawback to its widespread implementation, but more efficiency can mean falling prices in the long-term. This means that one of the barriers to clean energy – cost – may be seeing dramatic improvements in the near future.

How did the researchers do it? RayGen Resources and Spectrolab, the two companies that worked together on the project through funding from ARENA, created a ‘custom optical bandpass filter’ that harnesses otherwise wasted sunlight, according to a press release. The filter converts this sunlight to energy at a higher efficiency rate than that of solar PV cells.

It is a monumental step in the path toward sustainable energy, as it more than doubled solar technology’s efficiency rate of 20 per cent in 1989.

“This is the highest efficiency ever reported for sunlight conversion into electricity,” Professor Martin Green of UNSW said in a statement. “We used commercial solar cells, but in a new way, so these efficiency improvements are readily accessible to the solar industry.”

Australia’s renewable energy capacity

Australia has a unique advantage over some developing countries in terms of its potential to pioneer a renewables-based energy economy. The country’s natural resources include plentiful sunlight and, in many parts of the country, a huge capacity for wind power.

Take, for example, the day South Australia powered the lives of its 1.7 million residents on 100 per cent renewable energy for one day. The state was able to succeed in the endeavour by utilising wind and solar power, and even turned off the state’s thermal energy power generators in order to test the project’s viability.

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