Going solar: lots of Aussies

The news headlines a couple of days ago were, “35-fold increase in solar power,” which I thought was pretty good, but there is more to it than that. Here’s how the ABC saw it:

A new report released at climate talks in South Africa overnight has found the number of solar panels installed in Australian homes has grown 35-fold in the past three years.

The Clean Energy Report says more than 1 million Australians now live in homes powered by solar panels and the nation is on track to meet its target of a fifth of its energy from renewables by 2020.

While state feed-in tariffs helped increase the popularity of solar energy, the report found uncertainty over whether a carbon tax would be introduced stalled larger projects like the construction of new wind farms.

They were reporting on a publication of the Clean Energy Council, working primarily from this press release (pdf) about a bigger report which is available from their site.  Its biggest numbers are:

  • Renewables generate 10% of Australia’s electricity.
  • Hydro generates two thirds (67%) of that, with wind next at 22%, followed by bioenergy at 8.5% and solar PV at 2.3%; other technologies are all less than a tenth of solar PV.

So solar PV is still tiny but it is no longer insignificant and is growing really fast.

The other domestic solar technology, passive solar water heating, is not mentioned amongst the electricity generation figures but actually saves three times as much fossil fuel as domestic PV: “The energy saved from solar water heating is equivalent to 7.2% of the clean energy generated in Australia.” That said, the growth of solar hot water has slowed over the last couple of years after a big spike in 2009. The Clean Energy Council thinks that is because, “The generous government support available for solar PV systems has led many customers to choose PV over solar hot water, despite the excellent energy savings available from the latter technology,” but that, “a national ban on the replacement of electric hot water systems from 2012 is expected to give the solar hot water industry a welcome boost.”

Back to electricity generation:

The growth of solar power was one of the stories of 2011 following a record year in 2010, when 380 MW of solar power was installed. As at the end of August 2011, 1031 MW of solar power was installed across the country, representing more than half a million household systems. This is more than nine times the amount of solar power installed as at the end of 2009 and more than 35 times the total installed just three years ago in 2008. More than 230,000 of these systems were installed in the eight months from January to August 2011.

Nationally it is estimated that 8% of all suitable homes are fitted with a solar photovoltaic (PV) power system. … The cost of solar PV continues to fall rapidly and is expected to reach the cost of grid electricity towards the middle of the decade.

And if you need another reason to feel good about your own solar PV installation (or another reason for installing one soon), here it is:

Electricity prices in Australia have risen about 30 per cent over the last four years. 

There are several factors behind the recent price rises. By far the largest is the need to replace and upgrade the ageing poles and wires of the national electricity grid, some of which have been in service for more than 40 years. Recent estimates suggest that more than $130 billion will be necessary to upgrade the network over the next decade, growing to $220 billion over 20 years. Research indicates that these network costs will cause price rises of up to 66 per cent in NSW and Queensland by 2015. Similar increases are likely in other states and territories. [my emphasis]

That, of course, will reduce pay-back time for solar installations considerably.

No-one can do anything about suppliers’ need to replace ageing poles and wires, but growth in solar PV will reduce the concurrent need to increase the capacity of the distribution  network, as well as postponing the need for new baseload power stations. If we try hard enough, perhaps we can put off major new power stations long enough for wind and solar technology to have become the automatic first choice.