One million Australian households now produce solar electricity
IN March 2012, Sian Dart had solar panels installed on her roof in Footscray. But it was late May before the system was finally connected to the grid. In the meantime, she spent hours chasing paperwork between the installer, the electricity distributor and the retailer.
It took another four months before the last mix-up was resolved. “It was very frustrating, and I’m not sure how long it would’ve taken if we hadn’t followed up so doggedly,” she says.
Earlier this year, the 1 millionth Australian household – about one in nine across the country – installed solar photovoltaic panels. There are half a million with solar hot water services too.
The process doesn’t always go as expected, for reasons both practical and political: rebates and feed-in tariffs have been in flux in every state. But now there are so many systems on roofs, solar homeowners are gaining a stronger public voice.
In Victoria, the electorate with the most solar households is Lalor, held by former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, with just over 10,000 homes out of 80,000. Other solar strongholds include regional seats McEwen, Indi and McMillan. Altogether, Victorian homeowners have invested about $1.3 billion in solar electricity.
Those statistics have been gathered by advocacy group 100% Renewable Energy, which has prepared “solar scorecards” rating each member of parliament before the federal election. The organisation has also started Solar Citizens, a community project to transform the growing people-power into pressure for solar-friendly policies.
“As individual consumers, we’re isolated and relatively powerless compared to big energy companies who have enormous influence over governments,” says Geoff Evans, from Solar Citizens.
“We want to unite solar households, and people who like solar, to call on decision-makers to grow this technology that enables people to save money and produce clean energy.”
Dr Evans argues solar electricity is unfairly blamed for increasing power prices, and that solar owners must not be lumped with high fixed connection fees.
The Productivity Commission’s recent report on the electricity network, released in late June, supports his claim about price rises. It attributed most of the jump in bills in recent years to “spiralling network costs”, caused in part by poor regulation of the industry.
Regulators and utilities here have so far resisted the shift to distributed power generation, but in New Zealand there are signs of change. Vector, the electricity distributor for Auckland and surrounds, has begun a pilot programme offering a 3-kilowatt solar panel system together with battery storage. It costs $2000 up front, with a monthly fee of $70 for 12 years.
For an average household, that equates to about the same or less cost than normal bills. Participants remain connected to the grid, but the battery storage will help reduce the evening peak demand on the network.
In Footscray, with her panels in place, Ms Dart’s electricity bills have fallen by more than two-thirds. Unexpectedly, generating her own power has also made her more “militant” about avoiding unnecessary waste.
“Since we got the glitches sorted, it’s been drama-free – they’re sitting there doing their job,” she says. “If it’s sunny during the day, I feel good knowing we’re making a few dollars.”
To help avoid the trouble she had, you can prepare yourself with the Clean Energy Council’s guide to buying household solar panels, which includes a step-by-step installation checklist.