Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Following the sun

Following the sun: The pioneering years of solar energy research at The Australian National University 1970—2005

Robin Tennant-Wood
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: ANU Press
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Following the sun
    Book Description:

    In 1970 a small group of physicists at The Australian National University decided to veer away from the accepted and expected directions in energy research and pursued the emerging discipline of solar energy. Over the next decade ANU joined a small cluster of research institutions, including the CSIRO, UNSW and the University of Sydney, to emerge as a world leader in solar energy technology. This book traces the history of solar energy research at ANU over 35 years from its origin, its sometimes controversial early stages, through its flagship projects to its current status as one of the world's best known solar energy research establishments. It is as much a story of the future as it is a history: Following the sun is the story of how an idea to pursue what was in 1970 a new and unpopular research path has come to underpin sustainable development in the 21st Century.

    eISBN: 978-1-922144-13-3
    Subjects: History of Science & Technology, Physics

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-2)

    Solar energy in Australia is rapidly gaining in profile and acceptance at all levels of society, science, technology and politics. Increasing awareness of both the environmental issues associated with fossil fuels and the declining cost of renewable energy and its technologies, coupled with government schemes to encourage uptake of domestic solar power systems, has seen the sector grow very rapidly in recent years. Behind the government policy and climate change debate, the marketing and commercialisation and solar energyʹs coming of age as an alternative to conventional power, lies a story that goes back to the early 1970s. Commercially viable solar...

  6. 1. White Cliffs: From laboratory to reality
    (pp. 3-12)

    When viewed on the satellite imagery of Google Earth, the barren pockmarked landscape of White Cliffs in north-west New South Wales bears a startling resemblance to photographs of the surface of Mars. Most homes are underground. Except for the few roads and a small cluster of above-ground buildings denoting human habitation, the pitted mullock heaps, disused opal dugouts, and the copper-red vastness of the surrounding landscape could almost be images of the red planet. On the southern edge of the tiny township, a curious V-shaped structure stands in contrast to the rectangular regularity of the townʹs roofs. At a greater...

  7. 2. Why solar? Why then?
    (pp. 13-22)

    Solar energy research began at ANU in 1971 at a time when renewable energy and ecological imperatives were not high on the social or political agendas. When Stephen Kaneff began his work in solar energy at ANU in 1971, Australia had a population of 12.5 million, the Prime Minister was Billy (later Sir William) McMahon and the national anthem was God Save the Queen. The average weekly wage for men was $95.60 and for women $73.60 (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1971a), and there was only a 37% female participation rate in the labour force. A brand new Holden HQ sedan...

  8. 3. The Big Dish: Looking beyond the 1990s
    (pp. 23-26)

    The Big Dish, the solar concentrator section of the solar thermal power system officially designated SG3 (Solar Generator 3), sits on the bank of Sullivans Creek at ANU, below the hill that has been occupied since the 1950s by the buildings of RSPhysS. The Big Dish was constructed in the early 1990s. It has been joined by a second, slightly larger, ʹbig dishʹ that was funded as part of the ANU–Wizard relationship in the late 2000s. The dishes are visible to cyclists and lunchtime walkers on the Sullivans Creek bike track, to rowers on the creek itself, and in...

  9. 4. Evolution: Solar energy research as a distinct entity
    (pp. 27-42)

    The Research School of Physical Sciences (RSPhysS) was established on the Acton campus of The Australian National University (ANU) in 1950, following the appointment in 1948 of the Australian nuclear physicist, Mark (later Sir Marcus) Oliphant, who was then living in England, as its foundation director. In the two years prior to its establishment at Acton, the embryonic RSPhysS operated in Birmingham where Oliphant and a small technical staff began work planning for the new school (Ophel and Jenkin 1996). Oliphantʹs own area of research and expertise ensured that nuclear physics was central to the development of the school which,...

  10. 5. The wider Australian solar scene: 1970s–1990s
    (pp. 43-50)

    While Stephen Kaneff and Peter Carden were building their research program at ANU, two other Australian universities were starting to take a research interest in solar energy. In 1974, Martin Green, now professor and executive research director at the Photovoltaics Centre of Excellence at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), returned to Australia — after having completed his PhD in solar energy at McMaster University in Canada — to work with Lou Davies at UNSW in solar energy. He quickly became aware of the work being undertaken at ANU in thermochemical storage of solar energy and made a trip...

  11. 6. Solar energy research and commercial expansion
    (pp. 51-58)

    At The Australian National University (ANU), the White Cliffs project was a catalyst for the establishment of ANUTECH, as the commercial division of the University, and also a catalyst for solar energy research and development in Australia. It was a serendipitous — and highly charged — alignment of academic advancement, technical skill, commercial application and political imperative. One of the obstacles facing Stephen Kaneff and his team was that the University still regarded applied science and engineering research as falling outside the parameters of its mission under the Commonwealth Act¹ by which it was established. Applied or technical work was...

  12. 7. Environment, climate change and solar energy
    (pp. 59-68)

    The pioneers of solar energy at The Australian National University (ANU) did not regard themselves as tree-hugging greenies with the primary objective of saving the planet. It is true, however, that concern for the environmental impacts associated with the use of fossil fuels, resource extraction and nuclear energy played a large part in their motivation. Influenced significantly by the oil crisis of the early 1970s and the debate over nuclear energy, as well as the imperative to look for alternative viable sources of energy, they were also committed engineering physicists, intent on furthering the science and technology in their chosen...

  13. 8. Solar energy in changing times
    (pp. 69-78)

    A popular aphorism holds that politics is not the business of changing things, but of keeping things the same. In the history of solar energy research, politics has never been far from the heart of the matter and, with it, have been the opposing tensions of progress and stasis — changing things versus keeping things the same. For the purpose of this history, the term 'politics' includes the external political processes, which have served both to aid and obstruct progress in solar energy, and internal university politics that, while a feature of every institution, has been historically instrumental in shaping...

  14. Appendix 1. List of people interviewed
    (pp. 79-80)
  15. Appendix 2. Organisational flow chart
    (pp. 81-82)
  16. Appendix 3. One page summary from 1970s to the present
    (pp. 83-84)
  17. Appendix 4. Solar energy: Explaining the science
    (pp. 85-90)
  18. Appendix 5. Recommendations from the 1995 Expert Group on Renewable Energy Technologies
    (pp. 91-94)
  19. Appendix 6. Photos
    (pp. 95-104)
  20. References
    (pp. 105-108)