Despite rebate changes, solar energy is on the rise
Last year, the European Union set a deadline for all new buildings to meet a “nearly zero energy” standard by 2020. It also directed its member countries to make plans to boost the performance of existing buildings.
By comparison, Australian building energy standards are far less stringent.
Maria Wall, from Lund University in Sweden, explains that European homes will have to be super energy efficient, and then meet their remaining needs by way of solar photovoltaic panels and solar hot water.
The EU’s target encourages the installation of distributed (locally generated) electricity production.
“You must start with buildings have very low energy demand and then add the renewables,” she says. “You can’t skip the efficiency, because otherwise you can’t get the equation to reach zero.”
Ms Wall leads a research project for the International Energy Agency, investigating solar energy and architecture. She visited Australia recently to present a seminar on the latest solar technology for buildings.
Under the project, researchers from 15 countries are compiling case studies and developing new design tools. Ms Wall argues that to get the most efficient and affordable results, solar energy must be part of the initial design concept.
She observes that Australia has much greater potential for solar harvesting than northern Europe. “If you’re renovating or building a new house, you should think about renewable energy from the start. Add it now, because it will make you more independent of rising energy costs,” she says. “You have the possibility, so you should use it.”
In Sweden, there are no rebates for solar panels. Here, however, the local industry is coming to terms with yet another change in government subsidies.
The most recent re-jig is a hefty cut in the Victorian government’s solar feed-in-tariff – the rate that panel owners are paid for the surplus energy they put back into the grid.
When the feed-in-tariff was introduced, it offered panel owners a minimum of 60 cents per kilowatt-hour, for 15 years. The new arrangement, called the transitional feed-in tariff, reduces the rate to a minimum of 25 cents, for only five years.
In July, the federal government’s solar credits scheme was also reduced.
Brad Shone, from Moreland Energy Foundation, says it’s very difficult to calculate accurate payback times, given the endless changes to government subsidies, together with the fluctuating price of renewable energy certificates and swiftly rising energy charges.
“It’s still a good thing to put solar on your roof, because you’re increasing the amount of renewable energy in Australia. But it becomes complicated if you’re focussed on the payback,” Mr Shone says. “It’s impossible for an average person in the street to understand the variables.”
The Moreland Energy Foundation coordinates a solar energy bulk-purchasing scheme for nine councils that are members of the Northern Alliance for Greenhouse Action. Together, they’re aiming to install clean energy systems in 1000 houses throughout Melbourne’s north.
“We’ve taken some of the risk away from householders, by doing all the research,” Mr Shone says. “We’ve found a product we trust at a good price, through a reputable, local installer.”
A 1.5-kilowatt solar electricity system will cost $4690 up front, including the current federal government subsidy.
“The first step is to make all the savings you can by improving your building shell,” he advises. “Solar electricity is the cream on top.”