Solar: the new normal for a sunny country

Claire O'Rourke

Here's an incendiary statement: solar is ordinary. Really ordinary. In fact, it's so ordinary that these days solar has become the new normal in our homes and in our culture. Soaring uptake rates are driving sky-high engagement in clean energy that is influencing people, policy and politics in ways we have not seen before.

Solar PV was once the territory of the hardened greenie or off-grid obsessive, but these days it's as common as a BBQ on Australia Day. (Have you actually been at a BBQ where people start talking about their solar panels? If you haven't yet it's only a matter of time − you'll find people comparing feed-in-tariffs, kilowatt hours and demand shifting in intimate detail.)

In Australia right now, 1.4 million-plus rooftops sport this money-saving, planet greening technology, up from only around 14,000 systems seven years ago according to data collated by the Clean Energy Regulator.

There are a few reasons why this happened. The price of panels and other component parts dropped substantially − solar PV module costs have fallen by 75% since the end of 2009, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency. Federal policies such as the Renewable Energy Target helped reduce the price of installation and up-front investment, and state-based feed-in-tariffs gave people a payment for the electricity they fed back into the grid.

Let's consider what this new normal means. First, it's changed the way our energy is produced and consumed. Less than 10 years ago, we had a one-way system but this has been shaken up so comprehensively that rooftop solar is directly challenging business models for established industries in the way the internet challenged the media and music industries.

When people go solar their behaviour changes. Households start monitoring their electricity usage, changing lightbulbs, placing monitors on their fridges and doing away with standby power, taking the next steps in energy efficiency in homes and businesses to maximise the return on that investment. This has been dubbed as the rise of the active, engaged consumer, or the 'prosumer'.

Imagine just how much this is going to shift in the next few years, which is hinted at in a recent report from Morgan Stanley that suggests 2.4 million households in the National Electricity Market will go solar.

Storage technology is about to enter the market en masse, which will be an absolute game changer for solar. It will allow people to store their daytime energy and use it at night, relieving peak demand and providing consumers even more control of electricity generation and consumption. Morgan Stanley's report also notes that Tesla may not be able to meet the anticipated high levels of demand likely from Australia for its storage product − the slickly marketed Powerwall − with a predicted 1.1 million suitable households set to line up quick-smart to take advantage of this and other storage technologies.

Second, the popularity of clean energy right now is unparalleled. An Ipsos poll released in May found 87% support for rooftop solar panels among respondents, and 78% "strongly" or "somewhat" backed large-scale solar farms. Wind farms and hydro, at 72%, also far eclipsed the backing of just 23% for coal and 26% for nuclear energy.

And is this any surprise, with solar panels acting as gigantic billboards for low power bills along most suburban streets around the nation? The evidence shows that the giant leap from rooftop PV to big solar or wind farms assumed by some politicians is actually a pretty small step.

Third, solar has created a constituency of millions of people − literally five million people − who are enjoying the relief that solar delivers to the hip pocket after years of extreme price hikes driven primarily by network charges. A recent survey of Solar Citizens supporters − which had 5,000 responses − found that 60% of respondents had saved at least 50% on their annual power charges.

Solar owners have skin in the game and want to protect their investment, this is clear. But what is less well known is that there are enough solar owners in every one of the top 25 marginal electorates to decide the outcome in those seats at the next Federal election. In some key electorates solar homes number more than 25% of all homes in that electorate.

That's why Solar Citizens welcomes Labor's pledge to take an achievable goal of at least 50% renewable energy to the next election. This goal will create at least 20,000 new jobs, help to reduce emissions, prompt innovation and encourage new business models that ensure we can protect stable, affordable electricity supplies for all who need it.

With good planning and orderly, sensible policy, people will not be left behind as the way we generate, store and trade power fundamentally changes. Most importantly it allows for a real debate around how our changing energy system will be managed and given where the country's mood is at, it's a debate politicians ignore at their peril.

Claire O'Rourke is Solar Citizens National Director.

Reprinted and lightly abridged from ABC Environment, 11 Aug 2015, www.abc.net.au/environment/articles/2015/08/11/4290434.htm

Published in Chain Reaction, national magazine of Friends of the Earth, Australia, edition #124, September 2015, www.foe.org.au/chain-reaction