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Solar Panel Surge

While hardly anybody was watching, Australia has made a quantum leap in home solar panel installations.  So much so, the peak industry body Clean Energy Council reported in early April that more than one million Australian homes now have installed solar power systems.

Clean Energy Council (CEC) Chief Executive David Green said this means approximately 2.5 million Australians now live in a home with a set of solar panels on the roof – more than the entire population of Western Australia. “It is remarkable when you think that just five years ago in 2008 there were only about 20,000 systems installed across the entire country,” Green said.

Now an estimated 200,000 systems are being added annually according to Stephen Garrett, CEO of Pyramid Power one of the longest-standing solar companies, based on the NSW South Coast.

Regional Australia is now a world leader in PV (photovoltaic) installs. The commercial adoption rate however is lagging, something like 18th in the world, said Garrett. This may change as large solar plants come on-line.

Besides regional households generally, other identified enthusiasts for solar power are those in mortgage-belt suburbs and where there is a preponderance of retirees. While most solar systems are attached to the electricity grid and can import and export power, Garrett says a growing trend is for off-grid battery storage solar systems, and that is not just people living far out in the bush.

What they all have in common is a reaction to the steeply rising cost of electricity in the past two years (not due to the carbon price) and the steep drop in the cost of solar panels during the same time, mainly due to a great increase of Chinese production. (The federal government’s renewable energy target of 20 percent of power sold continues to also support the cost of installing a solar system).

When the NSW 60 cent per kWh buyback incentive scheme was in play, leading to a rush of solar installations, the cost of a 1.4 kW system was around $6000.  Now a top quality system is around $2900. The same quality 4 kW system, that can cover much domestic use, can now be had for around $7,500, about half what it was three years ago. A 5 kW system is a thousand dollars more.

Savings on electricity costs main game, plus saving on greenhouse gas emissions

Garrett said many solar householders have calculated they will be ahead even with no buyback incentive schemes and with only some retailers buying solar electricity that automatically goes into the grid (feed-in tariff). The payment is a meagre 5 –7 cents per kWh. The current cost to consumers to buy grid power is about 22 – 29 cents per kWh.

Back of the envelope calculations confirm that if you use the solar electricity as it is generated, e.g. by the retired, the self-employed, or parents who stay at home with young children, the savings from not paying those 22–29 cents per kWh  puts you ahead over a short time with a currently priced solar system.

Meanwhile, regulating the electricity industry to ensure a fairer return on un-used solar power fed back into the grid (for example by people working away from home during the day), is politically out of sync with the economic thinking of current state governments.

The industry regulator IPART said that if solar households were treated like other wholesale electricity generators, the return should be something like 10.3 cents per kWh. IPART provides a comparison of retailer feed-in tariff offers at www.myenergyoffers.nsw.gov.au. Further fact sheets and discussions are available from both IPART and Trade and Investment NSW.

Finding an installer is helped by the CEC site www.solaraccreditation.com.au.

Type in the name of a company to check out the reviews and get a sense of customer satisfaction. The reviews also highlight the dramatic drop in price since 2011.763

The solar industry currently employs more than 8,000 Australians and benefits electricity retailers and other consumers by the added clean power but also by taking some load off the grid on hot days, according to the CEC.

Look for an update on what Australia is achieving with ‘Solar Cities’ next month. It’s amazing and seemingly a well-kept secret except where the program is happening.

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