Last month, CSIRO and the International Energy Agency hosted a high level solar symposium at the Energy Centre in Mayfield West.

Newcastle has long been known as an energy hub because of the Hunter’s wealth of coal resources. But increasingly it is becoming known for the development and demonstration of innovative renewable technologies – particularly solar.

The event was a ‘United Nations’ of solar power. Global leaders representing 20 countries came together to exchange the latest ideas and information that will advance solar technology, make it more affordable and move the world closer to the widespread commercial deployment of solar energy.

Welcoming so much solar expertise to our region was an amazing opportunity, made all the more significant because this is the first time the symposium has been held in Australia.

Many people are familiar with the solar photovoltaic panels that are commonly seen on the roofs of our homes but last week’s symposium and much of CSIRO’s solar research focuses on the development of the ‘other’ solar, concentrating solar power (CSP) systems.

CSP is a form of solar technology that holds great promise, partly because it builds on the same power station technology that runs our country today.

Instead of using coal or gas to provide heat, mirrors concentrate the sun to make high temperature steam or air for turbines that could ultimately be of the same magnitude as those currently running on coal.

These large scale solar power stations are already operating overseas and more are being built.

The real attraction of CSP is its ability to integrate low-cost thermal storage to make solar power dispatchable, meaning solar energy can be supplied to the grid whether the sun is shining . . . or not.

This is particularly valuable when we consider that our demand for electricity tends to peak late on hot summer days so a solar power station with six hours of storage can continue to provide power late into the evening.

CSP with integrated storage can also provide grid stability and allow other renewables, such as solar cells and wind, to play a greater role in the energy mix.

More than 2 million square metres of mirrors have been operating in large commercial plants since the late 1980s so we know CSP works.

The most important issue in the short to medium term is cost reduction – CSP costs must at least halve to be competitive.

The targets have been largely identified – mirrors need to be built for less than $100 per square metre, operating temperatures need to be increased and advanced high-efficiency turbine cycles will be needed.

These are big goals and they can only be achieved through research working hand-in-hand with industry.

The CSIRO Energy Centre is home to the premier solar thermal research facility in the country, where our research team has been developing and demonstrating CSP technology to overcome the critical challenges of lowering technology cost, finding energy storage solutions to overcome intermittency issues and increasing the integration of renewables into the electricity grid.

CSIRO researchers have already developed high precision, low-cost mirrors that optimise thermal energy in the CSP process and we are working on projects that improve CSP efficiency by more than 30 per cent over existing steam turbines.

As we learnt last week, our work is up there with the best in the world, but industry partnership is essential if we are to see CSP built at a scale that can contribute to the supply of baseload power in Australia and around the world.

There’s certainly plenty of room for Australia’s hard-pressed manufacturing industry to bring its expertise to the fore.

CSP comprises all disciplines of engineering such as electrical, mechanical, chemical, electronic, mechatronics, civil and production engineering, as well as optical and material physics, and so a city like Newcastle can play a huge role, even if the CSP plants themselves are built further west where some of the best sun in the world is found.

This work is well under way.

By harnessing the capability of our researchers and our world-class facilities; and by collaborating with global leaders we are unlocking Australia’s solar energy potential and strengthening Newcastle’s position as the national home of energy innovation.

Wes Stein is the program leader for CSIRO’s solar energy research program.