UNSW solar expert wins international energy prize

University of New South Wales (UNSW) solar energy pioneer Scientia Professor Martin Green has become the first Australian to win the prestigious Global Energy Prize.

The annual prize, worth more than $820,000, honours outstanding achievements in research and technology that are addressing the world’s energy challenges.

The prize was awarded to Professor Green for his research development and educational activities in the field of photovoltaics.

He was selected from a list of 44 contenders, including Tesla’s Elon Musk, from 14 countries.

Professor Green, who is director of the Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics at UNSW, was honoured for having “revolutionised the efficiency and costs of solar photovoltaics, making this now the lowest cost option for bulk electricity supply”.

He shares the prize and RUB 39 million ($820,000) prizemoney this year with Russian scientist Sergey Alekseenko, an expert in thermal power engineering.

Professor Green is a world-leading specialist in both monocrystalline and polycrystalline silicon solar cells, and the research group he founded in UNSW Engineering is the largest and best-known university-based photovoltaic research group in the world.

The enormous reductions in costs in photovoltaic solar systems in recent years is directly related to his scientific efforts, largely through the work of his students in establishing manufacturing centres in Asia.

“The efficiency of solar modules is an area whose progress has been faster than many experts expected, and this is good news,” Professor Green said.

“We need to maintain the pace of research in Australia, not only to keep our international lead, but also to benefit society by providing a cheap, low carbon source of electricity.

“Given the quality of the candidates on the shortlist, receiving this prize is a great honour, and will spur on our efforts. I look forward to the presentation in Russia in October.”

In 1989, Professor Green’s team supplied the solar cells for the first photovoltaic system with an energy conversion efficiency of 20 per cent.

And in 2014, he headed the development team that first demonstrated the conversion of sunlight into electricity with an energy conversion efficiency of 40 per cent.

Among his many breakthroughs, he invented the PERC solar cell, which accounted for more than 24 per cent of the world’s silicon cell manufacturing capacity at the end of 2017.

Sales of systems containing this solar cell exceeded US$10 billion in 2017 and are predicted to exceed US$1 trillion by 2040.

“As a world-leading researcher in photovoltaics, Martin has delivered truly transformational outcomes in renewable energy for more than three decades,” UNSW president and vice-chancellor Professor Ian Jacobs said.

“Martin is a highly deserving recipient of this global prize and we warmly congratulate him.

“His fundamental and applied research has transformed the global energy sector and will continue to produce major economic and social benefits, both in Australia and worldwide.”

UNSW dean of engineering Professor Mark Hoffman said the work of Professor Green and his research team has had a profound impact on the globe.

“They have created the highest efficiency solar cells using techniques that have made them accessible to the world through commercialization,” Professor Hoffman said.

“And all of this has been achieved in Australia. We are proud of Martin’s inspiration leadership and pioneering research which is helping address the challenge of climate change.”

Professor Green is co-inventor of the laser-doped, selective emitter solar cell, used in solar panels worth more than $1 billion, which were sold by the company Suntech between 2009 and 2011.

He is also a pioneer in the area of perovskite photocells, which he believes could be used as a supplement to silicon solar panels, with a combination of the two materials potentially able to further reduce the cost of electricity.

The highly prestigious Global Energy Prize was established in Russia in 2003 through the Global Energy Association, with the support of leading Russian Energy companies Gazprom, FGCUES, and Surgutneftegas.

The choice of winners is made by a committee of 20 leading scientists from 13 countries.