A totally solar-powered city

Learn whether Australian cities can go completely solar and how it is fairing compared to the rest of the world.

Energy Progress
4 min read
Learn whether Australian cities can go completely solar and how it is fairing compared to the rest of the world.

Australia has already trialled the idea with the Federal Government’s Solar Cities program, which was designed to promote solar energy and energy conservation. It ran from 2008-2013, and numerous Australian cities, including Alice Springs, Adelaide, Blacktown and Townsville, took part.

At the end of the five years in Alice Springs, solar power installations represented 46% of its total estimated greenhouse gas savings.

Here’s what other cities around the world are doing with solar power and how Australia is fairing in the solar-power landscape.

1. Solarsiedlung, Germany

Back in 1994, solar architect Rolf Disch created The Heliotrope, Rolf’s home. It was the first building ever constructed that captures more energy than it uses. The whole structure rotates so that its solar thermal collectors follow the sun throughout the day.

In 2004, Rolf went bigger and created a solar-powered estate. Today, that estate produces four times more energy than it uses.

The space, called Solarsiedlung (translating to ‘solar estate’), has living spaces, offices and retail outlets, all completely powered by solar energy sources.

Like the Heliotrope, Solarsiedlung was constructed with solar energy in mind from the very beginning. Solar panels are not simply slapped onto pre-existing structures, they are part of the structure.

Back at home
In 2014, the Australian town of Uralla in New South Wales (population 2,754) won a tender to be used as a model for Australia’s first Zero Net Energy Town Project, which means it will investigate ways to purchase or generate energy from renewable sources.

And in the Victorian town of Newstead, plans are underway to switch to 100% renewable energy.

2. Texas, USA

Georgetown, a small town about 40 kilometres north of Austin, Texas, signed on to be completely powered by solar and wind by 2017. The interim city manager of the town, Jim Briggs, said: “we didn’t do this to save the world – we did this to get a competitive rate and reduce the risk for our customers”.

Briggs and the city’s utility company found that the market conditions in Georgetown meant that renewable energy was cheaper than the available non-renewable sources. A combination of government incentives, the falling price of reliable Chinese-made panels and Georgetown’s sunny, gusty conditions made it the perfect place for renewable generation. In many other Texas cities, such as Houston, utility companies find it more difficult to commit to the long-term investment required for renewable generation, due in part to a lack of favourable market conditions. However, much resistance to renewable energy also comes from a lack of education and old misconceptions about its reliability and economic viability.

Briggs realised that Georgetown was in the enviable position to fully embrace the 100% renewable energy option, which made it an easy decision for the whole town to switch.

Back at home
Back home, the City of Sydney has plans to generate its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, but there are doubts it will be able to disconnect from the grid entirely.

3. La Paz, Mexico

La Paz has been working towards being a 100% renewable-powered city since 2015. It began with one solar power plant that provided 64% of the power requirements for the city of 200,000 people. The plan is for the entire city to be 100% solar powered and construction has been underway to develop more solar capacity in the region. To keep up with the energy needs at night, there’s also an 11-megawatt battery storage capacity.

Back at home
In 2015 an exciting project was launched to build a floating solar farm, which generates power at a wastewater treatment facility near Jamestown, South Australia, but it’s expected the excess energy will also feed back into the Jamestown grid.

What does Australia need to run 100% solar?

  • Design: As with Solarsiedlung, solar panels were regarded as part of the estate’s design. Harnessing solar energy is an important factor to consider when designing cities, estates and homes.
  • Innovation: Australia is already at the forefront of research and development into solar power, which includes technology that could potentially make solar plants more competitive with other energy sources, including coal. More funding into innovation could see solar become a viable energy source for more Australian cities.
  • Battery storage: As no city can run on solar at night, the major Australian cities would require large solar plants and battery storage for us to become 100% solar powered 24/7.

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