Words and Pictures

with Elizabeth Walton

Solar Olympic Village

Alternative power for Sydney2000

Australia may be a sunburnt country yet it’s hardly one drenched in a passion for solar power. Solar is more popular in Europe – albeit with less sunshine – than most of Australia. Sydney, the country’s largest city, has an electricity grid so cheap and fail-safe, it leaves little incentive for investing in photovoltaics.

Australia’s Northern Territory, on the other hand, is so remote that everything from petrol to Perrier water is trucked overland more than 3,000 km from suppliers in the southern states. Forty five percent of Territorian houses are fitted with solar arrays. This is purely economics at play – it’s simply cheaper to install solar collectors than pay the ongoing costs of trucked in fuels.

Enter the Sydney Olympics. Sydney’s pitch to host the 2000 Games was hinged on its passion to stage the first ‘Green Olympics’ – no small task. The Sydney bid committee wrote a weighty set of environmental guidelines for a Summer Olympics, which caution tenderers to clearly display their environmental credentials – and spell out the environmental implications of their project. The International Olympics Committee bought the pitch – and the game plan too. All bidding countries are now expected to show how they intend to improve their environmental act if they win the right to stage the Games.

For Sydney, improving environmental performance meant going for solar. Sydney’s Organising Committee for the Olympic Games is building the world’s largest solar village. The 665 houses in the Olympic Athlete’s Village will be 1 kilowatt mini power generators, which channel excess energy into the power grid. During peak power demands or poor solar intensity, the systems will act in reverse, drawing power back from the grid. The solar suburb will generate around 1 million kilowatt hours of energy each year – enough to meet its own needs. The houses will consume about 75 per cent less energy than standard Australian homes – reducing CO2 emissions by something like the output of 13 million kms of car travel.

BP Solar Australia – a subsidiary of the British Petroleum Company – is creating the network, and the site will be maintained by Pacific Power. The design is completely integrated into the roof top – a departure from the usual solar array which stands atop the roof.

The solar generator for the 1996 Atlantan Olympics was a massive single collector – similar to the 200 kilowatt solar farm energyAustralia is installing. These commercial units produce electricity more cheaply, per kilowatt, than smaller roof top photovoltaics. But that depends on where the system is installed.

Solarex – a subsidiary of AMOCO – is connecting 36,400 houses throughout Indonesia’s archipelago of scattered islands, at a cost of $US18 million. Managing Director of Solarex Australia, Derek Bird, says “These are houses which are never going to be connected to an electricity grid.” It’s the same story in the Philippines where BP Solar has installed 1000 systems across 400 remote villages, costing $37AUD.

Andrew Blakers at the Australian National University has begun making solar cells using Epilift – a method which does away with the costly exercise of grinding silicon into micro thin wafers – most of which ends up as sawdust. Epilift cells also have the advantage of being transparent – opening the way for a broad range of architectural applications.

Dr Martin Green, whose team at New South Wales University pushes the boundaries of thin film technology and cell efficiency says: “President Clinton has announced a US plan to put in 1 million roof top systems – and the Japanese are installing 9,400 this year. It’s really taxing the ability of the present manufacturers. But this type of application is definitely where the future of this technology lies.”

The Athlete’s Village will display mature, adaptable solar technology to Sydney and the world. It’s then up to innovative developers to incorporate that technology into energy-smart designs – whether or not they are connected to the grid.

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