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Australia centers on renewable energy

Sunday, December 17, 2000
By Jason Major

Australian households and industries could produce their own clean, green electricity or draw it from a nearby source under a radical new distribution concept in Australia.

The energy sector of Australia's national science agency, CSIRO, plans to establish the Centre for Distributed Energy and Power, which will focus on research, development and marketing to support smaller, localized energy systems — systems that could slash Australia's greenhouse gas emissions by more than half.

The systems, incorporating fuel cells, gas micro-turbines and renewable energy technologies, could range from multi-megawatt capacity that serve major industrial complexes down to 10 kW capacity for individual households.

"This form of energy supply is strengthening worldwide and is now impacting on Australia," says John Wright, chief of energy technology at the national science agency.

"Gas and solar hot water heaters are an accepted part of our homes. Why not a small gas-powered fuel cell or micro-turbine that could cleanly and silently provide a family's entire electricity, heating and cooling needs on demand," he says.

While the most common fuel used in distributed systems is natural gas, the technologies involved lend themselves to greater use of renewable energy, such as solar and biomass.

"It is the combination of high reliability and low emissions that makes distributed energy so attractive," says Wright.

Large, coal-fired power stations have underpinned the growth of the Australian economy over the past 50 years. Such generators, however, have relatively low thermal efficiency — around 35 percent — and 8% of this can be lost along the miles of power lines.

"Modern power generation technologies can now be located close to the user allowing high fuel efficiency that can approach 90 percent in some cases," says Wright.

"Distributed energy systems that provide electricity and heat have the potential to cut greenhouse emissions by well over half.

"The key is to get the most appropriate 'mix and match' energy system in place to meet the customer's needs. Often, but not always, that comes down to what is the cheapest option."

The center will build on CSIRO's existing work in fuel cells, energy storage, solar/fossil hybrid systems, wind modeling techniques, gas technologies and network modeling. But the emphasis will be to bring in industry partners and other research groups to provide complete solutions.

"We see a strong role for Australian industry in the development of software and communications systems for distributed power, as well as power electronics, safety and interface systems," says Dr Wright.

The activities of the center will be an integral part of CSIRO energy technology's new headquarters in Newcastle, Australia.