Australia's scientific triumphs have a hard time entering the nation's folklore. It may be why the passivated emitter and rear cell, or PERC, isn't as widely celebrated as it should be.
Unlike the Hills Hoist and WiFi, it isn't a household name among Australian-led inventions.
That seems a shame, because the solar energy technology has become one of the world's most successful. It has rapidly gained market share in the photovoltaic industry, and is mitigating 1 per cent of the world's carbon emissions by pushing out coal power. About 90 per cent of solar panels made around the world contain the PERC technology.
Cumulative worldwide sales of PERC modules have reached more than $100 billion. Andrew Blakers, who was on the University of NSW team that developed the technology, says the figure is doubling every three years, which would push its carbon reduction beyond 10 per cent of emissions.
The technology breakthrough didn't happen in a vacuum. It emerged in the 1980s when UNSW researchers looked for, and found, a more efficient way of converting energy from the sun into electricity. The PERC was later commercialised overseas.
Thirty years on, the federal government has told Australians and the world that technology will underpin the nation's efforts to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2050.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, speaking at the Glasgow summit earlier this month, said it would be "the Australian way" of reaching the target.
"It will be our scientists, our technologists, our engineers, our entrepreneurs, our industrialists and our financiers that will actually chart the path to net zero," he said.
"And it is up to us as leaders of governments to back them in.
"The Australian way is to bet on them - and we think that's a good bet."
Everyone's talking big about future zero carbon technologies. And no one's spending big, certainly not in Australia.Professor Frank Jotzo
Climate change experts aren't so sure the federal government is living up to those words.
Australia spends less on research and development as a proportion of GDP (1.79 per cent) than the OECD average (2.48 per cent). Spending on R&D has fallen as a percentage of the Australian economy since 2008. Universities, major incubators of pioneering research used to develop new technology, will sustain more government funding cuts over the next three years and are reeling from the COVID-induced loss of revenues from international student enrolments.
Regardless, the federal government's net zero plan bets the nation will find 15 per cent of its emission reductions through unknown, future technology breakthroughs. Experts say Australia will need to spend vastly more on R&D if it's to make some of the necessary innovations, rather than be a spectator - and eventually purchaser - of new technology made overseas.
They also say it is governments - not the private sector - that will have to take the lead in funding the early-stage research leading to breakthroughs like the PERC.
Australian National University climate change economics professor Frank Jotzo says the nation's public spend on R&D is totally inadequate for the challenge ahead.
"Everyone's talking big about future zero carbon technologies. And no one's spending big, certainly not in Australia," he says.
"If we as a nation were to be serious about actually making a global difference on these things, and about actually positioning Australia for success on any of these things, then we'd have to go in there at a much larger scale.
"With the present amounts of money that are slated for government subsidies, you're just not going to achieve very much."
The PERC, one of Australia's major contributions to emissions-reducing technology, arose from research funded by Commonwealth and state organisations supporting renewable energy. The Australian Research Council also provided funding.
Professor Blakers, now an ANU engineering professor, draws two lessons from the experience for future research. First, diversity of funding sources is crucial. Second, long-term funding support lets researchers take the long view.
"There was a range of places to go and get money, and that meant that if you fell over in one area, you weren't out of business, you had another chance from some other organisation," he says.
"We had available to us long-term support that extended over years. And that was crucial to give us the leisure to go after things that were not obvious."
Researchers need access to short-term grant funding, longer-term program funding, and commercial sources of funding, he says.
Yes, it is a race
There is a pathway to reaching net zero emissions, and upscaling clean energy sources plays a major part. Climate change economists and technologists say that to a large extent, the necessary technology is already available. Professor Jotzo says almost all the actual emissions reductions that will be achieved in Australia will come from deploying existing technologies.
"There's not really any kind of miracle to wait for there," he says. Still, there are problems that R&D can solve and Australia can contribute to the effort.
"So the chance for Australia is to go hard, and to go fast, and to go big on those areas where Australian R&D can really make a difference," Professor Jotzo says.
Professor Blakers says the nation has the tools it needs to reach net zero at today's energy costs.
"But there is the opportunity to halve energy costs. And that's what we need more R&D to go after."
Solar technology researchers are looking for ways to make photovoltaic cells cheaper and more efficient.
Hydrogen made using electrolysis from wind and solar energy needs more R&D to achieve substantial cost reductions.
There are other prospects: Lithium batteries with 20 times more energy per kilo; hyper-efficient electric motors; and negative emissions technologies sucking carbon out of the atmosphere.
Climate change technologists and economists say the R&D needed to bring about the next innovations for low emissions technology will need well-funded public institutions including universities and CSIRO.
Comment was sought from the office of Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor.
Entrepreneur and ANU professor Lachlan Blackhall is working to solve big picture questions for the future of Australia's electricity system. He leads the university's Battery Storage and Grid Integration program, which is looking at new types of battery technologies that could be suited for storing energy in the electricity grid. It is also looking at how to integrate different energy assets - including solar panels, batteries and electric vehicles - so they work together in the grid to bring reliable and secure electricity supply.
Professor Blackhall says while the private sector is an important source of funding, it will be governments that provide funding for the research into early-stage technologies with a more uncertain return.
"When you're talking about big infrastructure, like energy, we're potentially talking about a decade or more to bring new technologies to market," Professor Blackhall says.
"And so the scale of the funding that's needed is often quite significant."
There are a few different models for the federal government to consider. The Australian Renewable Energy Agency provides money for relatively mature new technologies. Director of the ANU's Institute for Climate, Energy and Disaster Solutions Mark Howden proposes a new federal agency focused on funding earlier-stage research into less mature emissions-reduction technologies.
Science and Technology Australia has proposed a $2.4 billion research translation fund channeling funding to promising technologies that need further work to reach a point where the private sector will begin investing.
The peak body's chief executive Misha Schubert says the nation will need to back the work of its scientists, engineers and technologists.
"What we know from the history of research and development, particularly technological development, is when there are those bursts of direct investment and a pipeline to bring those technologies faster along the developmental pathway, that's where you see really exciting and high paced breakthroughs in world leading technology," she says.
"What we need to do is back in the work of our scientists, engineers and technologists so that they can help us chart a pathway that is clever and swift, and makes the transitions that the climate science so clearly says need to be made."
Professor Blackhall says funding is needed for carbon emission-reducing technologies right across their pipeline from early research to the point they're commercialised and then integrated with the energy system. In the face of the existential threat posed by climate change, and warnings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change about looming thresholds, there is no time to waste, he says.
"More funding is going to be needed across that entire pipeline, to ensure that we can actually bring these new technologies and capabilities to scale in the timeframe that we need," Professor Blackhall says.
"Because we also need to recognise now that it's a race to ensure that we can transition in sufficient time to make sure that the impacts of global warming are mitigated."
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