For some time I’d been harbouring a suspicion that Queensland was a laggard when it came to renewable energy. That may have been the case in the past – wind and solar generation increased only 3% between 2006 and 2016. But a recent national survey by the Clean Energy Council found that eight of the country’s top 10 domestic solar panel users are in Queensland. Bundaberg, which has some 11,060 households with solar panel installations, tops the list.
The Clean Energy Australia report (2018) said that in 2017, more than 1100 MW of rooftop solar power capacity was installed Australia-wide. This has happened despite the winding back of once-attractive subsidies to install solar, as well as a reduction in the amounts paid for selling energy back to the grid.
At the end of 2017, more than 50 large-scale wind and solar projects were under construction or scheduled to start in the near future. This represents more than 5,300 MW of new generating capacity, $10 billion in investment and 5,750 new direct jobs. Queensland’s share of this new infrastructure will generate 2121 MW, a $4 billion investment creating 3,196 jobs. If all of the proposed projects come to pass, they will generate more than 15% of Queensland’s present day electricity needs.
While some regional Queensland towns (Emerald, Charters Towers, Hughenden), are building solar farms, my observations are that the domestic and business use of solar is hit and miss. We visited shopping centres in regional towns that have gone to the trouble of providing shaded car parks for their customers. These shelters usually comprised heavy duty shade cloth over steel frames. If they’d spent more money, they could have their very own solar farm, protecting shoppers from the punishing summer sun and generating their own electricity.
The lights upon the hill
While it may seem relatively inconsequential, outback Councils and mining companies have adopted outdoor solar lighting, the latter to light pathways within mining villages. Charters Towers Council has spent a lot of money dressing up the town’s main attraction (Tower Hill), with picnic tables and a walkway made from recycled plastic leading to the 29 concrete bunkers which were used to store ammunition during WWII. At night, LED solar lights positioned every 20m or so light the steep path to the summit for the nightly amphitheatre show, Ghosts after Dark, a documentary about the town’s history and legends.
Renewable energy’s been on my mind since returning from 39 nights staying in caravan parks, recreation grounds, farm stays and free camps. The latter attract grey nomads and their generators. We were camped somewhere off grid for a few days, so I put our 120W portable solar panel out in the sun, as you do, while my neighbour primed his generator. It wasn’t that intrusive and he did shut it off at dusk, but when there are 90 vans on one large site…
Meanwhile, after three days off grid, our 12-volt lights and marine fan were still working; we charged our phones and my trusty laptop and all I had to do was to keep moving the panel as the sun passed over.
Until recently, we also had a portable solar light, a simple gooseneck lamp, very handy as an extra light when cooking. It has/had a pop-out panel you can hold in the palm of your hand. Alas, I left it sitting on a tree branch (charging), at the last or second-last camp site. We spent a fruitless hour or so traversing Townsville in search of an Ikea (from whence the light was purchased, moons ago). Alas, lackaday, it turns out there is no Ikea in Townsville. The GPS navigated us to the outer industrial suburbs to a warehouse which acts as a distribution depot for online orders (from outlets which so far have no real estate in Townsville).
Just because you have switched to renewable energy, that’s no reason to forget about maintenance. We have eight panels on the roof and a solar hot water system which pre-dates the panels. When the technician came to give the system its 10-year check-up, the part of the system which converts the sun into energy had given up the ghost some indeterminate time before. Which meant our hot water was being delivered via a 240v booster switch. This partially explained why (a) the water was sometimes not so hot and (b) the disparity in our power bill. So this week we hired a plumber who installed two new solar panels to service the hot water system. This cost a bit, but we are confident of once more returning to the world of smaller power bills.
Which brings us to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s recommendation to wind down the Small-scale Renewable Energy Scheme by 2021.There are varying opinions as to whether that is a good or bad thing.
Lucy Percival of the Grattan Institute says the ACCC concluded that offering subsidies for household solar was a well-intentioned but ultimately misguided policy.
“Solar schemes were too generous, unfairly disadvantaged lower-income households, and failed to adjust to the changing economics of household solar.”
The SRES subsidy did not reduce as the cost of solar installation fell. So a larger proportion of solar installation was paid for by the scheme, as prices fell (from around $18,000 for a 1.5kW system in 2007 to around $5,000 for a 3kW system today).
In addition, premium feed-in tariffs were well above what generators were paid for their electricity production. Historically, solar feed-in tariffs paid households between 16c and 60c per kilowatt-hour, while wholesale prices were less than 5c per kWh.
Not everyone agrees that the ACCC got this right. Joseph Scales, national director of Solar Citizens said that while much of the ACCC’s report was ‘spot on’, the suggestion to slash the small-scale (subsidy) made zero sense.
“Solar is the best way to guarantee energy bill savings. Our governments should be helping more people to take the power back from the big power companies by installing cost-cutting solar.”
By way of example, New South Wales solar owners saved all of the state’s energy consumers $2.2 billion in just one year.
Meanwhile, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) will meet today to decide whether to support the Federal Government’s controversial National Energy Guarantee.
Solar Citizens and other pro-renewable lobby groups have three main objections to what they see as flawed, old-school energy policy:
- The NEG will allow energy retailers to continue to benefit from energy fed back into the grid from customers’ rooftop solar systems (given that many consumers are paid around 11c per Kw, while retailers charge upwards of 32c per Kw) ;
- The NEG does not provide incentives for renewable energy but instead props up ageing and inefficient coal plants;
- The renewable energy target for 2030 is now so low it will be covered by schemes already planned or under construction.
It’s hard to see the NEG fixing the number one issue – the rising cost of electricity. Meanwhile, some three million Australian households have taken the matter into their own hands, installing solar panels. Now we just have to convert the two thirds of households who don’t have solar that it is the right way to go.
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