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Wake up Australia, and take a lesson on solar from Korea

I am here in Seoul, the burgeoning and confident capital of a burgeoning and confident Korea, to investigate the country’s formidable “Green Growth” strategy. Back in August 2008, the Korean government…

ANU’s “big dish” solar is the envy of Asia, but the Australian Government has turned its back. AAP

I am here in Seoul, the burgeoning and confident capital of a burgeoning and confident Korea, to investigate the country’s formidable “Green Growth” strategy.

Back in August 2008, the Korean government, under its president Lee Myung-Bak, declared green technologies to be the source of a new “growth engine” for the Korean economy.

Since then the country has:

  • created a new energy R&D coordination body, backed by a budget of $1 billion

  • set a goal of building the world’s first “smart grid” national system by 2030, and is well into a full-scale pilot project to test technologies on the southern island of Jeju

  • backed new concepts like electric vehicles powered by lithium-ion polymer batteries, which adjust their shape to the space available and provide continuous low-cost energy

  • pushed hard on a range of renewable and low-carbon technologies, including the country’s own Advanced Power Reactor (APR) nuclear reactors.

Oh, and it is streamlining investment into the new green sectors, that so far run to financing of nearly $50 billion. That’s billion, not million – compared with Australia’s much-touted Solar Flagship program which is funded at the level of millions.

Korea doesn’t do things by half – as it showed by its amazing industrial development through the 1960s and 70s; and then by its equally amazing recovery from the 1997 Asian financial crisis, ahead of all its competitors. Now it views green technology as the next industrial revolution, and it is pursuing serious strategies to get off its fossil fuel economy to a clean energy economy. This is viewed as good for Korea as a country (energy security) but also as an export platform for the 21st century.

I was struck by the depth and seriousness of the Korean commitment to transform its largely fossil-fuelled industrial economy in the space of just a couple of decades, and create a renewable technology export powerhouse for the next century.

Korea’s work on electric vehicles looks pretty good. AAP

When I was giving a talk to the Presidential Commission on Green Growth last week, one item came up that had the room jumping. I mentioned concentrated solar power as the technology which is going to prove the game changer in renewable energy. It can generate energy at scale, on land not being used for any other purpose, and (if utilising molten salt technology) continuously, 24 hours a day.

The audience at the PCGG seminar jumped in, all talking at once. They wanted to know where the leaders of this new approach to generating solar energy were to be found. I had to admit that the leaders were in Spain and Italy. I mentioned Australia’s “solar dish” CSP technology, and said that it too was a contender.

All interest then focused on the solar dish idea, as a means of generating very high industrial temperatures and continuous electric power through a “big dish” that concentrates the sun over 2000 times onto a small energy converter containing molten salts. If the Koreans are so interested in the idea, and how to access such technology, then you know it’s a winner.

And the Korean approach will be – mark my words – to turn the solar dish concept into a central component of their new green growth industrial strategy. They will be expected to acquire rights to the technology, and then adapt it through the intervention of Hyundai or LG or Samsung (the Korean innovation champions). They will mass produce the dishes in the thousands and then promote use of the technology throughout the world, providing all the components and materials from Korean sources.

The contrast with our approach in Australia could not be more stark. So far, we have seen two major solar technologies starved of funds and shipped offshore. There was thin-film solar photovoltaic technology, developed at the University of NSW under Professor Martin Green, that became a political football and a casualty of NSW state politics (when Bob Carr was premier). It was eventually sold off to Germany.

Along the way a young Chinese PhD student picked up the rudiments of the technology and built his own company in Wuxi, China. This has now grown into Suntech Power, the world’s largest producer of solar PV panels, and has made Dr Zhengrong Shi one of the richest men in China.

The other was a CSP technology utilising an array of Fresnel mirrors tracking the sun in highly efficient form, developed by Sydney University’s Professor David Mills. Again he could not get funding and moved to California where he set up Ausra, a very successful solar power generating company (and now on-sold to French nuclear giant Areva).

Now Australia has a third breakthrough solar technology, this time in the form of a big dish solar reflector that can focus the sun’s rays and concentrate them 2000 times. It creates industrial scale temperatures over 1000 degrees centigrade in a molten salt fluid held under pressure, and generates electric power by turning water into steam through heat exchange with the molten salts.

The Solar Thermal research group at ANU in Canberra developed the concept; they built the first prototype; and now they have built a second generation big dish that is the world’s largest such device and a contender to be one of the world’s most important renewable energy candidates. It could be deployed in deserts as very large-scale clean power producer connected to the grid. In industrial areas it could generate very high temperatures capable of fusing glass, metal – and in building future big dish power systems, so creating a totally renewable energy powered industrial system. When used with molten salts - as in WizardEnergy’s SUMO model - it can generate power 24 hours a day, thus overcoming the principal objection to scaling up solar power systems.

But the big dish was by-passed in the Federal Government’s Solar Flagships program. The claim that it was not “commercially ready” is directly contradicted by the creation of the Solar Oasis consortium that is now building a 40 MW big dish solar power generator at Whyalla, in South Australia.

Federal Government support has been minimal. You won’t find a mention of the big dish in a search of the Department of Energy, Industry and Resources website more recent than 2010. The breakthrough technology is routinely ignored in speeches from government ministers. A company was formed years ago to license the ANU technology and is possibly looking to sell this Australian treasure overseas to the highest bidder. The most recent Federal Government grant, to help the Whyalla Solar Oasis project get started, is limited to $60 million – as compared to the billions that would be made available elsewhere to drive such a promising new venture.

Sorry to end this postcard on a negative note. While we fiddle with tiny grants, the rest of the world – led by countries like Korea and China – is moving swiftly to rebuild their energy systems around renewables. Here is the business opportunity of the century, and Australia is in the box seat to provide technology and power for the world.

But we are consumed with fruitless debates over a carbon tax from which our biggest carbon exporters will be exempted, while precious national assets in renewable energy like the big dish solar power generator are neglected. Here we have a knowledge resource that we as a country have created, and it will long outlast the resources that we dig out of the ground. Isn’t it time that as a country we woke up?

Join the conversation

20 Comments sorted by

  1. Felix MacNeill

    Environmental Manager

    Of course the Koreans haven't joined the economic rationalist (now there's an oxymoron for you!) cult. They seem to be content to trust their own ability to reason, plan and act.

  2. Philip Dowling

    IT teacher

    I note that Spain, Italy and California were noted as being leaders for Korea to follow.
    The PIIGS that are so mentioned in the Financial Press, have an I for Italy and a S for Spain.
    Given the soaring unemployment rates in these areas, the plunging house prices, the rising interest rates that authorities must pay for loans, I would like to ask contributors to verify the accuracy of Korea's plans for renewable energy.
    If correct, I will take a highly geared bearish position in Korean share options.

    1. Ian Ashman


      In reply to Philip Dowling

      You might find Philip that the problems in Spain and Italy have a little more to do with the GFC that supporting solar energy. I think you know that but hey, never let the facts get in the way of your worldview...

    2. Philip Dowling

      IT teacher

      In reply to Ian Ashman

      My worldview is largely formed by following, and the value of the shares in the ASX, and what is driving them. When my worldview is wrong, I loose money. When I am right, I make money. I prefer making money
      Your reference to GFC conflates two issues.
      What is commonly referred to as GFC was caused by US government policies which encouraged banks to lend money to people who could not repay the mortgages and the bundling and on-selling of these mortgages as risk equivalent to more…

      Read more
    3. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Philip Dowling

      Any chance excessively low US taxes contributed to the issue?

      Any chance doctrinaire abrogation of prudential responsibility (aka deregulation) contributed to the issue.

      Bloomberg's will tell you to invest in Australian coal miners. Australia has so much coal-fired power, and coal exports to North Asia, so Bloombergs will tell you that they're pretty sound investments.

      Well, that's true this decade. I think Prof Mathews's report tells us that Australia won't be doing well out of coal next decade.

      Which reminds me: who do you think writes Australia's energy and development policies?

    4. Philip Dowling

      IT teacher

      In reply to David Arthur

      There were a number of factors that exacerbated the problem. However it was not deregulation as such that was a major factor. It was the misidentification and shifting of risk that was a major additional factor. This led to the problem with Freddy Mac and Fanny Mae for example. Also the notion of certain banks as being too big to fail and so requiring government bailouts using taxpayers' money is a symptom not of deregulation but of the shifting of risk from an institution to government. The fact…

      Read more
    5. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Philip Dowling

      An oversize derivatives market, several times the size of the real world economy has produced destructive price destabilisation in the real world.

      Left to themselves, financial institutions will always develop ever more complex trading instruments - as the brokers of the casinos, the institutions have the prospect of more business from which to profit.

      [The prospect of more business from which to profit accounts for the enthusiasm among financial institutions for using emission trading schemes as the vehicles for addressing global warming; how so-called "progressive" think-tanks and politicians have come to promote such economically destructive transfer of wealth to the wealthy escapes me.]

      Blaming ratings agencies for their role in a flawed financial system does not acknowledge the flaws in the system.

    6. Philip Dowling

      IT teacher

      In reply to David Arthur

      Of course brokers are always trying to drum up business. Their jobs and bonuses depend on it.
      I get emails suggesting derivatives positions and phone calls noting that i could write calls over shares that are currently unhedged.
      A colleague gets phone calls telling of the latest special on red and white wines.
      Both salesmen/brokers are performing similar functions. One makes a lot more money.
      I am hoping that the ASX will fall by 10% by the end of the month to maximize my profit, but not by more than 20%.
      Most people do not realise their risks. Insurance salesmen do.

    1. aligatorhardt

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Mark Harrigan

      The nuclear supply chain, transportation, de-commissioning, and storage of wastes, all constitute a large emission load. The reactor itself does not have emissions, but that does not dismiss the related emissions necessary for nuclear power to continue. The costs of new nuclear are higher than wind solar and geothermal or hydro power. The harmful health effects of radiation releases are evident in elevated cancer and birth defects, as shown in many reactor locations. The cost of storing nuclear wastes…

      Read more
    2. Mark Harrigan

      PhD Physicist

      In reply to aligatorhardt

      Mythologising and repeating misinformation does not aid the solution to the problem of how we reduce our reliance on Fossil Fuels. In fact such an approach makes you part of the problem, not the solution, since you wish to promulgate falsehoods

      You make a number of false assertions without evidence. This does not help the discussion nor reaching a solution

      1) According to the IEA nuclear is cost competitive with coal
      "The incremental cost of the…

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  3. Sung-Young Kim

    logged in via email

    Thanks John for this urgently needed contribution!

    You rightly state that 'Korea doesn’t do things by half...'. Ever since the announcement of The Korean Government's Green Growth Strategy, public and private resources are being poured into the development of new renewable energy technologies. Anyone that has been to Korea recently will understand the truly national level obsession with economic growth based on a non-fossil fuel energy sources and indeed as Mathews states, strategies to make a lot of money from the new technologies of which many have already been developed and being improved as we speak.

    What baffles me is the absence of common sense, let alone a strategy, to support Australia's well-positioned place to contribute to and benefit from the technological revolution currenlty underway.

    We hope that Canberra is listening!

  4. Christopher Wright

    Professor of Organisational Studies at University of Sydney


    Fascinating article. The contrast between the South Korean approach to renewable energy and our own couldn't be more stark. As the examples of Hyundai and Samsung demonstrate, once the Koreans turn their attention to something they usually achieve it in very quick time.

    By contrast, the appalling level of the current debate in Australia on climate change (and the relatively weak carbon pricing mechanism we're introducing) is an embarrassment. Mere mention of the term climate change invites…

    Read more
  5. Geoff Russell

    Computer Programmer, Author

    Did anybody fact check this article? Have a look at this graph from IEA of
    how South Korea generates electricity? Can you see the solar energy contribution?

    You will need a microscope.

    Can you see the nuclear contribution? 31% and growing. Korea is investing in multiple technologies, you you can see the difference between the technologies which deliver and those which don't. Everybody thinks solar can deliver but, so far, everybody has been…

    Read more
    1. Derek Bolton

      Retired s/w engineer

      In reply to Geoff Russell

      I don't see any conflict with the facts presented here.
      The article mentions a plan drafted in 2008 and subsequent developments. The graph you link stops at 2009 - hardly time for any adjustments to show through.
      A more current independent assessment can be found here:
      It certainly paints a less green picture of S Korea than the article does.

      But I take the main point of the article to be in relation to Australian Governments' poor support for our own technological innovation. No argument there from me.

  6. Daryl Deal


    What we really should be doing, is follow the Germans all the way.

    For example, in a conservative farming community town called 'Wildpoldsried" in Southern Bavaria, shows every one how self investment is the key, to a future healthy vibrant clean energy economy.

    1. Luke Weston

      Physicist / electronic engineer

      In reply to Daryl Deal

      We certainly shouldn't be following Germany... they're currently rolling out heaps of new coal-fired plants to replace perfectly good, existing, safe, environmentally friendly, high-capacity-factor nuclear power.

    2. aligatorhardt

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Luke Weston

      Germany reduced carbon emissions last year. It seems many nay sayers are getting ahead of themselves in claiming renewable power cannot do the job before they have been installed in large numbers. Certainly, the same could have been said for nuclear power in the 60's. But after the huge disasters of Chernobyl, and Fukushima, the negative costs have become hundreds of billions, and continue to produce health impacts.

  7. wilma western

    logged in via email

    South Korea has outstripped countries like Australia due to a generally more disciplined and motivated approach and to their refusal to follow the "free marketeers" mantras. I really enjoyed "23 Things they don't tell you about capitalism" by Ha Joon Chang . Should be compulsory reading for OZ politicians . Good to hear that the Whyalla project is going ahead -others may follow , and there is some private finance available . Too much govt funding available to help fossil-fuel based enterprises still , and Christine Milne's accusation that Australian companies that are both generators and retailers have helped to strangle large scale solar projects is worthy of urgent follow-up .