Australian support for the solar industry is faltering just as the technology promises to deliver baseload power.
Recent breakthroughs in concentrating solar power technology allow heat energy to be stored almost indefinitely - in molten salts - and dispatched as needed.
The Andasol parabolic trough solar thermal plant near Guadiz in Spain, developed and operated by German company Solar Millenium (which has an Australasian joint venture with Leighton Contractors), generates 50MW of clean electricity with enough storage to run for 7.5 hours without sun and around the clock in summer.
Spanish company Torresol, in joint venture with giant Middle-Eastern clean energy investor MASDAR - which is sniffing for opportunities in Australia - is developing other solar thermal projects near Seville and Cediz.
And there's plenty more coming with Bloomberg reporting 14000MW of solar thermal power stations are in the pipeline in Spain alone. That's enough clean power to run NSW, according to Matthew Wright, of Melbourne-based advocacy group Beyond Zero Emissions.
In the United States, SolarReserve and a division of giant defence contractor United Technologies plan a series of solar thermal "power towers'' in the Californian desert - generating between 50MW and 300MW each - again using molten salts to store energy and able to run 15 hours without sun.
The US Department of Energy predicts that by 2020 concentrating solar thermal power stations with storage will generate clean electricity at a cost of US3c to US6c per kilowatt hour. That's comparable with the cost of existing (and heavily-subsidised) coal-fired power and way cheaper than if the unknown additional cost of carbon capture and storage (CCS) was factored in.
Even better solar technology is being developed here, at the Australian National University, using super-heated ammonia to store energy. A company called Wizard Power is joint venturing with ANU to commercialise the process.
John Grimes, chief executive of the Australian New Zealand Solar Energy Society, fears a bitter replay of earlier brain drains.
"Australian scientists and research and development are at the leading edge of the world,'' he says. "What we lack is government support to commercialise and capitalise on that research.
"We will be the dumb consumers of the technology that we invented.''
The Australian government has shown this month it is all over the place when it comes to solar energy policy.
On a positive note it surprised many when the May budget allocated $1.35 billion to part-fund construction of up to four solar power stations generating as much as 1000MW each.
Contractor Worley Parsons, which last year put forward its Advanced Solar Technology project backed by major resource companies, is one contender (although its proposal doesn't include energy storage as yet).
Grimes is concerned that, amid continuing uncertainty over the Government's renewable energy target and emissions trading scheme - and in the wake of the financial crisis - it will be difficult to raise the matching private capital needed to get those projects off the ground.
Investor confidence would not be helped by the latest triple-whammy of abrupt decisions. The popular $8000 means-tested solar rebate was unilaterally dumped by environment minister Peter Garrett on June 11, a fortnight ahead of schedule, leaving many suppliers, installers and homeowners in the lurch.
Then it was revealed a replacement scheme, to provide solar credits under the new renewable energy target regime, in what was meant to be a smooth transition from July 1, would not be decided until August. Finally this week Garrett axed the Renewable Remote Power Generation program supporting installation of solar energy in remote areas.
"At this point in time there is no federal government support for domestic-scale PV (photovoltaics) in this country,'' says Grimes, "which demonstrates the lack of long-term thinking for this really important industry.
"There is no roadmap. All the PV manufacturers have pulled out - they're all gone, it's all over''
While the government scrimps on too-successful solar energy schemes, the May budget set aside more than $2 billion to be spent on problematic carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology - that the private sector itself wouldn't fund - even though Treasury's own figures predict CCS will not be commercially viable until 2033.
Another 20 years burning coal at the current rate and it could literally be too late to prevent dangerous, unstoppable climate change. Our coal-fired power stations have to be retired and replaced with efficient gas-fired (in the transition) and renewable power plants, and that process has to start now.
Australia has the best solar resource in the world, but the domestic market has not had the scale needed to support the rapid commercialisation of our home-grown solar technologies.
Australian scientist David Mills had to go to California to find backing for his company, Ausra, to build his solar thermal power stations there. (Local venture capital outfit Starfish Ventures, backed by what has quietly become our greenest super fund, VicSuper, has a stake.)
UNSW researcher Zhengrong Shi made a fortune taking Australian-developed PV technology to China, listing solar panel manufacturer Suntech on the NASDAQ technology stock exchange.
Brilliant Australian-listed Dyesol, which makes third generation photovoltaic cells, had to go to Wales and partner with giant manufacturer Corus to commercialise its power-generating "Colourcoat'' steel panels. (One wonders how colorbond maker Bluescope Steel missed this opportunity.)
Australia's state governments could help promote a home-grown solar energy industry but are pulling their most important policy lever in just the wrong way.
More than 60 jurisdictions around the world have introduced a gross feed-in tariff, which pays homeowners for every renewable kilowatt they generate - most famously Germany, where the renewable energy industry employed 280,000 people by last year.
In Australia only the ACT government has a gross tariff, brought in a year ago. Tasmania and the Northern Territory are yet to decide. The other states have a "net'' tariff, which only pays the homeowner only for any surplus electricity they generate. The most common solar systems only generate a maximum of 1-1.5kw - not enough to power a typical home. One energy expert told G-Biz our net feed-in tariffs were "completely stupid''.
NSW this week became the latest to bring in a net tariff, courtesy of supposedly green deputy premier and environment minister Carmel Tebbutt.
Pugnacious Electrical Trades Union branch secretary Dean Mighell, who also heads up the ACTU's environment committee, travelled to Germany and is preparing a union report calling for a gross feed-in tariff.
In Germany companies now specialise in putting solar panels, not just on domestic rooves, but on the much-larger rooves of factories, warehouses and malls, where acres of space on long term leases generate clean power. (Sounds like a good potential income source for Australia's stressed-out property industry.)
At a trade fair representatives of substantial German solar businesses told Mighell they were acutely aware of Australia's sun and space but were waiting for policy stability.
Mighell says the supply and installation of PV panels is a "massive opportunity'' for his members.
"Show me another industry with the potential for growth for blue-collar workers. There could be 20,000 jobs in the solar industry, if we get our act together.''
ANZSES' Grimes says Germany will reach a tipping point as soon as 2013-15, when solar energy achieves "grid parity'' with coal-generated electricity - and then starts to get cheaper.
In Australia, he says, power generators know grid parity could be achieved within a decade "and they are absolutely paranoid about that date arriving''.
Australia Institute executive director Richard Denniss says there is "no doubt the solar industry has been done over, in the development not just of the CPRS but this government's energy policy more broadly''.
"I don't think the government set out to do over the solar industry, but they found it so hard to resist other people's demands that the solar industry is the one that always ends up having to make the sacrifices.''
Australia's best solar innovators will succeed with or without our support, as they have before.
Victor Bivell, publisher of EcoInvestor magazine and a venture capital expert, believes Australia is getting more professional about retaining intellectual property and commercialising new technologies.
"As long as we keep a supply of good companies coming through, each one is a new chance to hit the big time,'' he says. "Sure, we've had a bit of spilt milk in the past but we've got experience out of it, and we can use that for the new IP coming through.''
Solar is coming whether we like it or not.
"Solar is inevitable,'' says Grimes. "It is reaching a tip-over point in Europe. The advent of the Obama administration is seeing a transformation of the US landscape in regards to solar. That will have a profound impact on solar technology globally and Australia will benefit from that regardless of what we do.
"But what a shame that Australia misses the opportunity to be at forefront of that.
"We were waiting for our Obama moment and the Rudd government, we expected, was going to deliver that to us.
"Prior to the (last federal) election, at least weekly you would see Kevin Rudd with a solar panel in the background of a media event. Well that's just proving to be somewhat cynical.''