Tag Archives: solar

Solar is the Brightest Energy Option

Originally published in newmatilda.com

Solar power may soon be the cheapest way to power your home – and the rapid growth of the industry is making other energy providers nervous. Ben Eltham on the solar revolution.

Few ordinary punters know who she is, but in renewable energy circles, she’s a rock star. Executive Secretary of global renewable energy policy network, REN21, Christine Lins is based at the UN Environment Program in Paris. REN21’s well-known Global Status Report is one of the most frequently cited reports establishing baseline data of the growth of the renewable energy internationally. Word has spread to Australia: Lins’ talk in Melbourne last week packed out a large lecture at the University of Melbourne.

You can watch her full speech at the Grattan Institute website, so I won’t recapitulate it here. But one thing stood out from her presentation: the astonishing global growth in solar energy.

Some of the statistics from the Global Status Report underline the solar explosion. An amazing 47 per cent of all new electricity generation in the entire EU came from photovoltaics in 2011. Almost 30 gigawatts of solar energy was added to global energy supply last year, a 74 per cent increase. Between 2006 and 2011, the operating capacity of solar electricity globally increased by an average of 58 per cent a year.

Global solar photovoltaic capacity is increasing exponentially. Source: REN 21 Global Status Report.

The reason for solar’s explosion is clear: shrinking costs. In just one year, 2011, the price of solar PV modules fell by 42 per cent. No wonder Lins called last year a “very special year” for renewable energy.”This is often a figure whenever I present this to an audience that is not too familiar with renewables development where this is some frowning, and people are wondering, because I think these are really remarkable figures,” Lins said last week, with typically Austrian understatement.

This plummeting cost base is transforming the energy industry, including in Australia. Although solar is still only a relatively small component of Australia’s energy mix, its growth is so rapid and its costs are shrinking so quickly that solar threatens to upend the entire structure of the Australian energy sector. That’s got a lot of people very excited. It’s got many established players in the energy industry very worried.

Nigel Morris is a well-known solar PV industry analyst, and a director of energy consulting firm Solar Business Services. He is optimistic about the exponential growth of solar PV globally. “I’d say it’s revolutionary for the energy industry in Australia, not just solar,” he told New Matilda in a recent phone interview. “The way that we traditionally view the electricity industry is absolutely going through a revolution.”

“As a general rule, in Australia, as a residential customer, on average solar system pricing, you will generate electricity cheaper than you can buy it in a vast majority of cases.”

“In many cases,” Morris says, “we are at socket parity.”

Socket parity is a term much bandied about in the industry, and not without justification. That’s because as electricity prices go up and solar PV costs come down, we are already in a situation in Australia where ordinary householders can generate much of the household electricity on their own roof, dramatically reducing their energy consumption from the grid.

The penny appears to have dropped for Australian householders, egged on by generous feed-in tariffs from state governments and renewable energy certificate credits from Canberra. According to the Australian PV Association (pdf), solar installations grew to 1.4 gigawatts in 2011, up from 571 megawatts in 2010 and 184 megawatts in 2009.

Solar installations in Australia more than doubled in 2010 and 2011. Source: Australian PV Association.

This rapid proliferation in solar systems is starting to seriously affect old calculations about the energy industry in Australia. The government’s normally conservative Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics is now predicting that solar will be the cheapest form of electricity generation by 2030. It’s what Mark Twidell of the Australian Solar Institute calls a “perfect storm of cost reduction”.

Twidell points out that solar PV has special advantages that other energy generation technologies lack. While wind turbines are themselves falling in costs by around 10 per cent a year, they remain large and quite complex mechanical engines. PV, by contrast, is closer in its technology base to the world of electronics fabrication. “When you look at the various technologies, most of them are spinning a turbine, whereas PV is solid state,” he says. “It’s a completely different cost structure. It’s disruptive in that costs can still go down.” As a result, solar PV appears to be enjoying a cost curve similar to the famous Moore’s Law we see in computer chips.

All that solar is starting to reduce household demand for electricity. Muriel Watt, an energy policy expert from the University of New South Wales, thinks “there’s a lot of capacity that has gone in the past few years, almost all of that is acting as negative load, so yes, that would be making significant contribution to reducing demand.”

Perhaps ironically, one of the biggest drivers of household solar has been rising electricity prices themselves. “There was always this view that the elasticity of demand was very low and you could keep putting prices up and people wouldn’t change what they used, but I they’ve just realise that that was incorrect,” Watt says. “Often times people will simply say ‘We’ve been thinking of putting insulation in for a long time, now that our power bill is $500, we’re actually going to do it’.”

As Watt observes, electricity retailers make money by selling electricity to you. “By and large they’re selling kilowatt hours,” she says. “So if you’re reducing your kilowatt hours their business model no longer works. Similarly the networks make money by kilowatt hours flowing through the network, so if you reduce that, their business model doesn’t work … we really need to change our retail market models.”

And because solar so threatens the existing business models of retailers and wholesalers, big energy is beginning to fight back. Morris says there is widespread concern in the solar industry that retailers and networks will begin to clamp down on solar installations, either by charging customers big money to hook up their panels, or simply by prohibiting them altogether.

“I’d say it’s the number one topic of discussion I’m having with solar companies every time I give a seminar,” he says. “It is not just something that might happen, it is something that is happening today.”

“If the network owner simply doesn’t want to connect you, there is no alternative, you have nowhere else to go … I had two calls this week from customers who had deals essentially agreed for 100 kilowatt systems, in one case the distributor said ‘We don’t want you to connect, we’re not going to allow you to connect’.”

Watt agrees. “There’s parts of the network in Brisbane where you can’t automatically connect [solar], and there’s parts of the diesel grid areas of northern Western Australia that you can’t automatically connect,” she confirms. “In terms of charging large sums of money, they’ve certainly done that for commercial installations where they hit you with large grid upgrade costs.”

Morris says “there is little if any” regulation around connecting solar — or indeed any form of distributed energy — in a network geometry still geared to the centralised distribution of power from big plants to households and small businesses. The issue was highlighted recently with a recent Queensland Competition Authority discussion paper, which recommended that householders with solar panels on their roof be forced to buy their own electricity from the grid at retail prices.

The recommendation was framed around what would be “fair and reasonable” to electricity retailers and distributors — but it’s hardly fair on consumers, who aren’t even allowed to use the electricity they generate on their roofs. When interviewed by Climate Spectator’s Tristan Edis, Matthew Wright from Beyond Zero Emissions likened the proposal to “telling someone they aren’t allowed to eat the fruit and vegetables grown in their own backyard and must sell it to the local Coles or Woolworths where they’ll then have to buy it back at a substantial mark-up.”

Mark Twidell says that regulatory reform is necessary if solar is not to be strangled by the entrenched power of the companies that run the grid. “I would say that it is inevitable that as markets change, regulations need to change. If we get the incentives right, it’s a win-win.”

But perhaps the clearest analysis of the changing nature of energy in Australia was outlined by Christine Lins. “There is a triangle of renewables policy”, she said in Melbourne last week, with the three points of the triangle occupied by energy security, industry policy and the environment. In Australia, blessed with vast reserves of fossil fuels, energy security has not been a driving force behind the development of renewable energy. Instead, the environment has been the main justification for policies like solar feed-in tariffs. But Lins argued that industry policy might be the real winning argument for the further development of renewables in Australia.

Rather than focusing on what jobs might be lost in dirty industries like coal, Australia could be focusing on the jobs of the future on offer with solar and other renewables. Lins pointed out that there are now five million jobs in renewable energy industries world-wide, a number sure to grow rapidly.

Twidell agrees. “70 to 80 per cent of the activity in solar is local,” he observes, with many of the jobs in renewable energy likely to be created in local services, such as electricians and installers.

This is a big new front in the war over the future of Australian energy. For a long time, the supposedly costly and uneconomic nature of clean energy has long been the most effective argument wheeled out by fossil fuel industries intent on protecting their turf. But as solar races towards cost parity, that argument is evaporating. Indeed, solar energy will soon be the cheapest and best way to power ordinary households and businesses.

Big energy is fighting back, however, lobbying for new regulations and industry protections. Given the vast lobbying power of the mining and fossil fuel industries, they have a good chance of succeeding. Now more than ever, the renewable industry’s best weapon will be ordinary voters.

Walk for SOLARdarity – Sunday 30 September

Right now over a hundred Australian Youth Climate Coalition volunteers are walking 325 kilometres from Port Augusta to Adelaide to show the government that Australia’s youth demands a future powered by renewable energy. They are walking for solar.

While some of us aren’t fit or free enough to join the Walk for Solar, we do still care about the world we will inherit. In fact, thousands of Australians, all over the country do. Therefore, to make the Walk for Solar as powerful as possible, there will be a Walk for Solidarity in every Australian capital city on Sunday 30 September.

In Victoria, we want to get as many people as possible walking to Martin Ferguson’s office in Preston. And what’s more, because we’re passionate about solar energy, and love a good pun, we will be walking in SOLARdarity. Yep, that’s right. We’re going to dress up as the sun. So join us this Sunday to show your support for renewable energy.

When: Sunday 30 September. We will be leaving CERES at 1pm, but hanging out and eating from 12pm.

Where: Meeting at CERES Environment Park, Roberts St, Brunswick East. We will then be walking 4km to Martin Ferguson’s office in Preston.

What to bring: Yellow clothes, sunscreen, water, snacks and friends!

You can find out more information, and tell us if your coming, by clicking here.



The results are in!

Australia is one of the sunniest countries on earth and yet our largest solar power station is a tiny 1.2 megawatts. With the sun-drenched landscape so much a part of Australia’s identity, it just makes sense for us to be using this valuable resource to supply energy for our nation. But while we’ve enthusiastically embraced solar panels on our rooftops we have so far failed to grasp the opportunity of large scale solar power to generate electricity, employment and energy stability into the future.

Solar thermal power plants that store the sun’s energy after the sun goes down can provide baseload power for our industries while solar PV at utility scale is expected to be cheaper than coal or gas by the middle of this decade. In combination with other renewable technologies such as wind, solar power can make our power supply cheaper and cleaner and just as reliable as what we now enjoy.

Investment in large scale solar now will set Australia up to benefit from stable electricity prices for decades to come in a way that coal and gas with their exposure to volatile international energy markets can no longer guarantee. And of course, it will help reduce emissions to slow down global warming.

Through the first half of 2012 12,000 Australians were polled on their attitudes to big solar. YCAN participated by doorknocking in Clifton Hill, Northcote, Preston and Reservoir.  The poll results show overwhelming levels of support for Australia getting on with the job of building big solar.  94% of respondents said they wanted to see big solar projects built in Australia while a further 95% wanted to see governments investing in big solar projects. The full report with the complete results is available here.

Dozens of community activists descended on Canberra this week to deliver the results. A video of the day can be seen below.

The combined effort of dozens of community volunteers together with the results of this new poll show that Australia is ready for its leaders – of all political parties – to embrace the huge opportunity that is solar power. The community is calling for it, business is ready to invest, the land and the sun is there. Lets get on with it!


Ted Baillieu – Premier of Victoria or coal industry rep?

Ted Baillieu with fellow climate change denialist Tony Abbott (Picture: John Hargest)

The fossil fuel industry is sure getting their money’s worth with Ted Baillieu and his Liberal/National Party Government.

In Ted Baillieu’s Victoria, building a wind farm is now almost impossible and the feed-in tariff for solar panels has been cut by over 50%. However, building a coal mine 800m from a primary school is OK, and if a mining company wants to dig for coal or drill for gas in your backyard, polluting our land, water and air, there’s nothing you can do about it.

Last week the Baillieu Government attacked renewable energy on two fronts. First, they introduced new planning laws that allow anyone within 2km of a proposed wind farm to veto the proposal. The Clean Energy Council estimates that this will cost Victoria $3.6 billion and thousands of jobs, as wind energy companies move to other states and other countries. Victoria’s population density means that it will be virtually impossible to build any more large-scale wind farms beyond the ones which already have planning approval.

However, destroying the wind energy industry wasn’t enough for Ted, two days later he announced that the feed-in tariff for solar panels (photovoltaics) was being cut from 60 cents per kilowatt hour (60c/kWh) guaranteed for 15 years, to 25c/kWh, guaranteed for 5 years. Estimates are that this will blow-out the payback period for putting solar panels on your roof (the time it takes before the amount you save on electricity covers the amount you spent on the panels) from around 7 years to around 14 years. Again, thousands of jobs and large sums of investment money will be destroyed.

Not only are Baillieu’s 19th Century energy policies costing jobs, increasing our reliance on coal and damaging our economy, they will also result in higher electricity prices. When the wind is blowing, or the sun shining on a hot day, wind and solar power can provide electricity cheaper than coal and gas power plants – driving down the average cost of electricity over a period of time (for more info on this click here).

So the question to ask is why? Why is Ted Baillieu willingly driving up the cost of electricity, cutting jobs and investment? Why is he destroying an industry that has around 90% support amongst the Australian public? Why is he abandoning climate action when he himself voted for a 20% by 2020 emissions reduction in the Victorian Parliament in 2010? The answer to these questions is in who is benefiting from these policies.

As is often the case with energy policy in Australia, the beneficiaries of Baillieu’s policies are the powerful and well-connected fossil fuel industry, in particular the gas and coal-fired electricity generators. As mentioned above, once a certain amount of renewable energy is built into our electricity grid the average wholesale price of electricity begins to fall – eating into the profits of the coal and gas companies. If renewable energy is held back, then these companies can continue to bring in exorbitant profits and consumers get stuck with ever increasing electricity prices and greenhouse gas pollution.

Don’t let Baillieu get away with it. As a start, you can send him an email by clicking here.

Join the backwards march!

Put this one in your diaries! We are having a backwards march to show our anger at how Victoria is going backwards under Baillieu. Sunday 13 November, 1pm, Parliament House.

* Cattle trampling our national parks
* New wind farms blocked and solar energy attacked
* Co2 emissions target ignored
* Endangered species habitat logged
* New coal-fired power station approved and funded with taxpayer money
* Anglesea coal mine continued
* Green Wedges threatened
* Westernport destruction fast-tracked

For more information click here.

Premier Baillieu said he would ‘fix the problems, and build the future’, but when it comes to climate change and our environment his government has created new problems and is threatening out future!

His government has no formal environment or climate change policy, and no clear vision for a more sustainable Victoria.

So after 12 disappointing months we’re marching backwards to demonstrate the direction the Premier is taking us.


The fight for Solar Systems continues…



The building of the first large-scale solar power plant in Australia is in doubt.

The Solar Systems power plant will create 1,000 renewable energy jobs, power 45,000 homes and uses home grown, Australian designed and built, world leading technology.

As the administrators look at whether funding for Solar Systems can be found, now is our chance to build momentum for clean energy and demand that state and Federal Governments live up to their rhetoric of supporting renewables.

Join us at the Save Solar Systems Rally, tomorrow, Friday 30th October at 5:30 PM at Parliament House.

Your voice counts. Tell the Government that we want solar not coal.

Help us save clean energy jobs and solar power

The Save Solar Systems campaign is asking for your support. The company Solar Systems has gone into administration making 100 workers redundant. This has put the construction of the first large scale solar power plant in Australia in doubt. It was to have been a $420 million project, that would have created 1000 jobs in construction and powered 45,000 homes.

State and federal governments had already promised $125 million to the project, but so far released less than $3 million of that money. We are asking that the federal government immediately intervenes to guarantee (i) that the Solar Systems factory in Abbotsford remains open, (ii) that the redundant workers are reinstated and, (iii) that a large scale solar power plant is built in Mildura.

We are asking you or your organisation to:
1 Sign the petition
2. Write or call Lindsay Tanner MP, Member for Melbourne asking for the three points listed above. Email him at lindsay.tanner.mp@aph.gov.au or call on 9602 2911
3 Endorse the Save Solar Systems rally, 2pm Sunday 11 October, 45 Grosvenor Street, Abbotsford (off Victoria Street, 109 tram from the city)
4 Publicise the rally, by emailing the details and information to your networks
5 Come to the rally
6 Let us know if you can provide photocopying or other resources for the campaign.
7 Come to organising meetings, every Sunday 1pm, at the Terminus Hotel, 605 Victoria St Abbotsford.

Contact via savesolarsystems -at- gmail.com – if you want further information. If you wish to be added to the email list, send a request with “please add me to you email list” to the same email address.

Below is an interview with one of the sacked Solar Systems workers (wind noise dies down after about 30 seconds), and another rally speaker from the first rally on 18 September:

For more information see the Solar Systems website, and media coverage (1, 2, 3, 4)

In Brumby’s Victoria: coal thrives, solar dies

While climate scientists all over the world call for a rapid transition away from coal, the Brumby and Rudd governments continue to support this dangerous industry while allowing crucial renewable energy projects to fall over.

Over the weekend the State Government announced it was looking into exporting brown coal, the world’s most greenhouse gas intensive fuel, to India. A week earlier, the company Solar Systems went into voluntary administration putting 150 jobs at risk. The company was not able to raise enough money from private investors to build what was going to be Australia’s biggest solar energy plant (so far) in the north-west of Victoria.

Considering the scale of the climate crisis, the Brumby Government cannot allow this project, which is technically sound, and the valuable employment that it will create, to go belly up. If they really believe the things they say about the seriousness of climate change and the importance of clean energy jobs, then this project must not be allowed to fail. If private money will not invest in this project due to the global financial crisis, as John Brumby has said, then government must step in. It’s time the government took responsibility for the transition away from coal to renewable energy.

Help us demand the Solar Systems project goes ahead:
Rally to save the solar plant
This Friday, 18 September, 12.30pm
Solar Systems Office, 45 Grosvenor St, Abbotsford

Bad Figures and Bad Decisions: A solar superpower sleeps

In May of last year, the State Government announced that a feed-in tariff would be introduced in Victoria. A feed-in tariff is a mechanism for encouraging the take-up of solar photovoltaic energy generation (otherwise known as solar panels). It has been very successful in Germany, transforming its solar power industry into a €2 billion export earner which employs 57,000 people.

The German feed-in tariff pays householders a premium rate for the energy that they produce from their solar panels, thereby reducing the pay-back period and encouraging take-up. This is called a gross feed-in tariff. However, unlike Germany’s model, Victoria’s feed-in tariff will only pay householders for the extra energy they feed into the grid left over after their own use, rather than the total energy produced. This is a net feed in tariff. Considering the Victorian model limits the size of eligible arrays to 2kW (which produces less electricity than the average household uses), it will be ineffective and will not result in mass take-up of solar technologies.

It was revealed last year when the decision was first announced, that the Victorian Environment Minister, Gavin Jennings was for a gross model, while the Energy Minister Peter Batchelor was in support of a net model. Mr Batchelor was able to convince Premier Brumby because he produced figures that showed a gross model would increase electricity costs to households by about $100 a year.

Last week, in a series of reports, The Age revealed that calculations by the State Government of the cost of a gross feed-in tariff was actually between $18 and $37 per year per household, and that the $100 a year figure was produced by Peter Batchelor at the last minute. It also revealed that senior state bureaucrats supported the gross feed-in tariff, claiming the State Government’s preferred model would be ineffective.

Peter Batchelor has yet to respond to questions on how he arrived at the $100 a year figure, and where it came from, considering his own department had already come up with a much lower cost figure in a detailed analysis. Did the Victorian Energy Minister simply make up the figures in order to quash a policy he didn’t like? A policy that would have seen thousands of jobs created and growth in a crucial renewable energy industry? And if he did, why did he do it when he knew the cost was not actually that great?

If these allegations are true, then Peter Batchelor has a lot to answer for. We still await his response.

To read the excellent series of investigative reports on this issue in The Age, click here, here and here.

It is not too late for the State Government to change its policy, adopt a gross feed-in tariff, and expand it to bigger solar photovoltaic systems and to commercial and community buildings as well as households. This is a policy that would do wonders for the take-up of solar energy technology, which is an essential plank of a science-based and just response to climate change.

There is currently a campaign to encourage the Federal Government to adopt a national gross feed-in tariff. Australia is a solar energy superpower, and our governments are failing to take advantage of it. To find out more and sign the petition, visit this website.