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Switching to solar

WORDS

Michael Green

As electricity prices increase, more people are turning to solar power to reduce their reliance on the electricity grid. For those who want to make the switch, Michael Green covers the basics of solar PV.

THERE’S A BASIC FACT THAT A

households it’s been the best of times and

surprisingly large number of people haven’t yet

the worst of times. Let’s start with the worst:

grasped about solar energy. “We still get queries

changes to government rebates.

from people who get solar photovoltaics mixed

up with solar water heating,” says Mick Harris,

is based on the trading value of ‘small-scale

managing director of eco-retailer EnviroGroup.

technology certificates’ (STCs, formerly known

“It’s really a matter of understanding what you

as RECs), which are created when renewable

want.”

energy systems are installed. Right now, eligible

It’s a simple point, but it underscores

householders receive a credit of three times the

the most important thing prospective panel

certificate price, which fluctuates according to

purchasers need to do – research well.

market demand. From 1 July 2012, the credit

Your deliberations will be detailed, from the

multiplier will be reduced to two, meaning the

technology and rebates to installation issues

rebate for householders will fall by one-third.

and variable electricity charges. But don’t be put

off – once the panels are in place, maintenance

governments have also been cut. These feed-in

is minimal. For at least 20 years, you’ll be able to

tariff schemes pay people according to how

sit back and enjoy the sunshine.

much energy a household supplies to the grid.

The Federal Government’s cash-back rebate

Most of the incentives offered by state

Queensland’s feed-in tariff is the last one intact TECHNOLOGY

[at the time of printing] – elsewhere they’ve been

There are three common types of solar PV

reduced, phased out or abolished overnight.

panels: monocrystalline, polycrystalline and

thin film. Most of the panels sold in Australia

Clean Energy Council, says that despite these

are of the mono and poly kind. Thin film is

cuts there is good news for household solar PV

much less efficient – it needs nearly double

that shouldn’t be overlooked. Overall the price

the roof space of other panels – but requires

hasn’t increased significantly, thanks to lower

far less silicon to make and has less embodied

production costs and the high Australian dollar.

energy. Lance Turner of the ATA adds that there

A 1.5 kilowatt grid-connect system can cost from

is also a hybrid panel made by Sanyo which

$1500 to $6000 installed (including the federal

is a combination of crystalline and thin film

rebate).

technologies. “These perform particularly well,”

he says, “but at a price premium.”

down dramatically over the last few years,” he

says. “Even five years ago, buying solar was a

If you’re technically minded or bent on getting even more from your PV system, consider installing your solar panels on an adjustable frame called a ‘solar tracker’. This enables them to be tilted to the optimum angle for maximum solar exposure across the year. Read more about solar trackers in ReNew magazine, issue 119. Image courtesy Geoff Thomas

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“The price of solar technology has come

will need an inverter, which converts the DC

major financial decision, like buying a car. But

(direct current) electricity produced by the

now that it’s in the ballpark of $2000, people put

panels to AC (alternating current) and feeds any

it on their credit card and get on with their lives.

excess electricity into the grid.

The market has changed dramatically.”

D

As well as the panels on the roof your system

Tim Sonnreich, policy manager at the

‘Building-integrated’ photovoltaic systems

such as tiles, facades or glazing are uncommon.

WHAT SIZE SYSTEM SHOULD I GET?

Susan Neill, from engineering consultancy

The answer to the all-important question of

Global Sustainable Energy Solutions, says those

size, says Mick Harris, will become clear when

systems are much more expensive: “It tends to

you ask three additional questions. “Firstly,

be driven by airports or iconic buildings that

how much room have you got? That’s going to

want to make a statement by putting it in.”

limit how much you can put on your house,” he explains. “Secondly, how much of your energy

REBATE MADNESS

bill do you want to get rid of? And thirdly, what

For the solar PV industry in Australia and for

is your budget?” a


PRODUCT PROFILE

D

SOLAR PV

D

Profiled in Sanctuary 18, Aaron Cuneo and Geoff Ross’ NSW hinterland home boasts an off-grid 4.2 kilowatt solar PV system. Before purchasing it, Aaron and Geoff did exhaustive research into energy efficient appliances and the house’s total energy load, to ensure the system would be adequate for their needs. Image by David Tooby

In the city, the comparatively much lower upfront cost of a grid-connect PV system is likely to be a better choice than a stand-alone system. Image courtesy Nick Stephenson

Estimated solar PV system costs and payback periods for a 2.0 kilowatt system This map estimates average solar PV system costs and payback periods by state for a quality 2 kilowatt system that has been installed to standards set by the Clean Energy Council, as modelled by the ATA in March 2012. This information should be used as a guide only as the cost and payback period of solar PV systems vary significantly based on a number of factors, including location, system size, solar exposure, export rates and government incentives, to name just a few. To work out the cost of a PV system for your house, seek quotes from accredited solar installers.

NT * $3,400 6c/kWh 19c/kWh 10 years

QLD $3,910 44c/kWh (net) 21c/kWh 5 years

WA $3,910 7c/kWh (net) 21c/kWh 11 years

SA $3,910 22c/kWh (net) 21c/kWh 8 years

NSW $3,910 8c/kWh (net) 19c/kWh 13 years

MAP LEGEND Retail system price Feed-in tariff (FiT) rate (net/gross) Electricity price (per kWh) Estimated payback (50% export)

ACT * $3,910 6c/kWh 16c/kWh 15 years

VIC

* No legislated feed-in tariffs are currently available in these states. Solar proponents may be able to negotiate a rate for feed-in direct with their electricity retailer, which could be reflective of that retailer’s wholesale cost of energy. Proxy feed-in rates have therefore been used for the purpose of this modelling exercise.

$4,390 25c/kWh (net) 27c & 11c/kWh 18 years

TAS * $4,390 6c/kWh 20c/kWh 15 years

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PRODUCT PROFILE

SOLAR PV

upfront for a good-quality system that will

ASK QUESTIONS

the mono and polycrystalline kind. Even a small

Shade is death for solar panels, especially

provide you plenty of savings on your electricity

Some local councils or community sustainability

amount of shading significantly reduces the

bill over time.”

groups still coordinate bulk purchases, though

efficiency of the whole system, so there’s no

Susan Neill suggests that before buying

they’re less common than they once were. If you

point buying one if you have a mighty big tree

you should request an indication of the panels’

haven’t the time or the head for research, these

blocking the sun. Ideally, for a small system,

performance. “Ask for a performance guarantee

schemes are a good source of information.

you’ll need at least 10 square metres of roof

that the system will produce a certain number

space facing north.

of kilowatt-hours per year, on average, for

Energy Council’s consumer guide to buying

your location,” she says. “Then you’ll have the

solar panels. It contains a comprehensive list of

knowledge to check it yourself.”

questions to ask, but the legwork is up to you.

Next, take a good look at your electricity

bill and make a note of how much you use. The average Australian household consumes

Even so, start your research with the Clean

“Shop around. Don’t make a snap decision,”

18 kilowatt-hours (kWh) a day, according to the

ENERGY RETAILERS AND DISTRIBUTORS

Sonnreich suggests. “Find a company that is

Clean Energy Council. The output of panels

You need to let your energy retailer know if

prepared to talk the issues through with you.”

varies throughout the country, but a 1.5 kilowatt

you’re going to install a solar PV system. Many

system will offset roughly a third of the average

retailers will offer you a premium for the

information about solar electricity, systems,

daily consumption.

electricity you export to the electricity grid, but

rebates and more: www.ata.org.au. The ATA has

don’t be bamboozled by that rate alone: make

a booklet on the subject, Solar Electricity: Plan

to think more broadly about where you use the

sure you find out what your new tariff and fee

your own solar electricity system, and ReNew

electricity you consume. If you have an electric

structure will be.

magazine regularly publishes solar PV buyers’

hot water service, it probably accounts for about

guides.]

a quarter of your bill, Sonnreich says. “Hot water

much is it really going to change your bill?”

is a major expense, so if you don’t have much

Sonnreich says. “You might get a better rate

sleuthing. “There’s a mixture of players out there

rooftop space, solar hot water might give you a

for the power you export, but you might pay

in the market – some of them are good and some

better return than PV.” [Ed note: See Sanctuary

more for the power you import. Do the sums on

are not so good,” he says.

15 for an overview of solar water heating,

everything.”

although note that government rebates may

the words ‘problems’ or ‘complaints’, you’ll

have changed since publication.]

companies, ask them about your new meter –

soon find out which is which. It’s also worth

who will supply it, how will it work and how

checking the popular forums on the Whirlpool

much will it cost?

and ATA websites. “You can protect yourself

At this point in the research process, it’s wise

INSTALLATION

“You have to ask the whole question – how

And while you’re speaking to the energy

Up to half the cost of your solar electricity

[Ed note: the ATA website also has

Mick Harris also recommends some

If you google a solar retailer, together with

from the worst of the companies by doing some

system will go towards its installation, and as

OFF-GRID SYSTEMS

with any job around the house, you’ll want to

Stand-alone renewable energy systems are much

make sure it’s done well.

more expensive upfront than grid-connected

LINKS

systems. As well as the panels, you’ll need

More information about solar PV

significantly according to their orientation,

batteries, a regulator to manage the way they

Clean Energy Council consumer guide:

access to full sun, and whether they’re angled

charge and possibly a backup generator.

solaraccreditation.com.au

appropriately for your latitude. With that

cleanenergycouncil.org.au

in mind, quiz your solar company about all

ATA commissioned research into the cost of off-

ATA Solar Electricity info and guide:

these requirements, and about their installers’

grid systems compared to grid infrastructure.

www.ata.org.au/sustainability

experience.

ATA forum

connect,” says Damien Moyse, “but if you have

www.ata.org.au/forums

tariffs, you must use an installer accredited by

an efficiently operating house, then you can set

Whirlpool forum

the Clean Energy Council. (You can find these

up one of these systems for $20,000 to $30,000

whirlpool.net.au

installers at www.solaraccreditation.com.au).

and it’s going to generate electricity for at least

The output of your panels will vary

To be eligible for the rebates and feed-in

After the Victorian bushfires in 2010, the

“The capital cost is high compared with grid

homework online,” Harris says.

20 years and longer.”

Suppliers and installers

order to be able to access the upfront discount

gses.com.au

provided by the Small Technology Certificates

Smart meters now allow retailers to set time-of-

envirogroup.com.au

(STCs) that are traded back through the

use tariffs that incorporate high rates for peak

CEC’s ‘Find an Installer’ page:

renewable energy market,” says Damien Moyse

time energy use. “If you are a household that

solaraccreditation.com.au

from the ATA. He adds that when choosing

cannot avoid consuming energy during these

a system and an installer, it’s best not to just

peak times, the long-term cost of installing

choose the cheapest one. “Solar, like any other

batteries and electricity backup may become

technology, depends on quality for performance,

an attractive option,” Moyse says. “However, in

and you want a system that will generate for

most circumstances this will not yet be the case

at least 20 to 30 years. Consider the warranties

and a grid-connect system will still offer plenty

closely and be prepared to pay a little more

of opportunity to avoid peak rates.”

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“You must use an accredited installer in

Is there any cause to go off-grid in the city?

Switching to solar  

Sanctuary Magazine article on solar photovoltaic panels

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