Industry and academia collaborate for improved sustainable energy

The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) reports that Australia has the highest average solar radiation per square metre of any continent in the world. Given the country’s capacity to take on large-scale solar electricity, it is no surprise the industry is rapidly expanding nationally.

According to ARENA, solar energy technology in Australia falls into two main types – solar photovoltaic and solar thermal.

Used on rooftops across Australian homes, solar photovoltaic technology converts sunlight directly into electricity using photovoltaic cells, which are combined in panels. They are  integrated into building designs, vehicles and panels used across fields as part of large-scale solar power plants.

Used in some industrial processes in place of gas, solar thermal technology converts sunlight into thermal energy or heat, which can be used to drive a refrigeration cycle to provide solar-based cooling, or to make steam that can be used to generate electricity using a steam turbine.

Australia’s uptake of solar has soared over the past decade. According to an Australian Energy Update 2018 report, solar photovoltaic has risen from less than 0.5 petajoules in 2006-07 to 29 petajoules in 2016–17, including growth of 18 per cent in 2017.

Overall, ARENA has reported a six per cent annual growth increase with renewables contributing 16 per cent of total generation in 2016-17. Solar represents a significant proportion of this growth with some increase also in hydro. Generation from solid waste and landfill biogas was three per cent of total renewable generation.

Companies such as Geli Australia, the local operation of San Francisco based Growing Energy Labs Inc, are harnessing the power of academic partnerships to meet soaring demand for solar. Working with some of the nation’s top researchers is helping open doors for Geli to innovate solutions to minimise energy consumption, lower costs and optimise management of solar power battery storage.

The company recognises this as essential to the delivery of next generation software solutions, automation and energy storage in the era of manufacturing 4.0. With a need to reduce customer energy costs, Geli Australia turned to Australian Postgraduate Research Intern (APR.Intern) to open the door to essential expertise to drive optimisation research. Monash University information technology PhD student, Shan He, was placed into a five-month research project with the company, which resulted in the delivery of a proof of concept for enhancements to Geli’s demand charge management optimisation.

For He, the industry experience was an opportunity to apply her expertise in mathematical optimisation and computer science skills to a real-world problem. “Throughout my project I learnt that technical skills are important, but the soft skills to deliver outcomes successfully are just as crucial. I believe the experience will support my career in both industry and academic sectors,” said He.

Senior staff data scientist at Geli, Zach Ernst, said He’s expertise in optimisation was of great interest to Geli. “Her research and analysis provided us with a strong jumping-off point to introduce new and innovative approaches to optimisation into our systems,” said Ernst.

With only two per cent of Australian businesses reporting engagement in innovation, Ernst said the relationship between research and industry is key to future-proofing business with innovation opportunities. “Government support for early-stage research and development is critical to the diversity of technical progress we can achieve as a global society.”

APR.Intern is an all-discipline PhD placement program, facilitating collaborations between universities and businesses. Working at the nexus between industry and academia, APR.Intern is a not-for-profit program open to all universities and industry sectors, including SMEs, large enterprises and government agencies.