2013: The Australian year in solar

2013 was a huge year full of ups and downs for the solar industry globally and in Australia. What were some of the most important milestones, events and trends of the year in solar?

Australia hits 1 million solar roofs & (later on) 3 gigawatts of solar capacity

Early in the year Australia hit the 1 million solar rooftop mark. In a country with a population of about 23 million people and around 6 million households, this is no small deal. The event was a cause for celebration across the solar industry and even made it into the mainstream press. It also caused the opposition (then the Coalition) to double their pre-election promise to deliver 1 million solar roofs to ‘1 million more solar roofs’. Closer to the end of the year, the country also saw the counter tick over for the cumulative installed solar capacity in the country, which reached a massive 3GW–a whole gigawatt of which can be found in Queensland.

Solar PV’s new place in mainstream Australia allowed for the formation of a political constituency made up of solar system owners, united under the blanket of the Solar Citizens action group. The power of this group was most evident in Western Australia, where the government’s move to retroactively reduce the feed-in tariff rates there saw a swift and solid response that resulted in the government reversing its plans in a mere 4 days. Similarly, when plans to reduce the Tasmanian feed-in tariff available through state utility Aurora was announced, Solar Citizens worked to see that a reasonable transitional agreement was set in place, ensuring that the investments of solar households in the state were protected.

The rise of commercial solar power

2013 was the year when businesses started to realise & take advantage of the benefits of rooftop solar in a big way, especially as electricity prices spiked in the wake of network investment and the introduction of the carbon price while solar PV installation prices (and by proxy the cost of generating solar electricity) dropped to historic lows.

As the remaining state-based feed-in tariffs disappear, solar self-consumption becomes the status quo

The heyday of feed-in tariffs for residential rooftop solar systems could be said to have ended last year when Queensland cut its 44c per kilowatt-hour incentive to 8c instead, but a number of less generous state-based schemes lingered on into 2013. South Australia and Victoria in due course closed their transitional FiT schemes, and the ACT and Tasmania saw fit to reduce the 1-for-1 rates that they had on offer. All of these were replaced with what is effectively the new status quo: a ‘market rate’ for exported solar set in most cases by the utilities themselves and working out to around 8c per kilowatt hour.

The oomph of this shift is that the main driver for taking up ownership of a solar system wasn’t to export & get paid for generating electricity, but rather to install a system with the intention of using the power generated on-site in order to offset power bills. ‘Self-consumption’ of solar electricity is now the new normal for those considering going solar–and it seems that with grid electricity prices as high as they are these days, the case has proven itself to be strong for the many who have installed systems even after incentives have been cut (Queensland being the prime example).

Energy storage talk heats up

The reality of solar self-consumption means that more and more solar households and businesses are looking for ways to prevent ‘leakage’ of their precious solar power to the electrical grid, as it is much more valuable to them if they can use it themselves. The best way to feel like you’re going off-grid without actually disconnecting from the power mains is to have a battery bank of your own to save the electricity for after-sundown use. Although chatter is not an event or a milestone in and of itself, in 2013 the conversation about energy storage entered new territory, with more energy storage products available on the Australian market than every before. The feeling is reminiscent of predictions about commercial solar power in 2012–the year before the commercial sector took off. Although energy storage uptake has not yet achieved anything like the success of rooftop solar, it would not be surprising to see this sector begin to take off in 2014.

The end of the reign of a (relatively) pro-renewables government

Of course one of the biggest events to take place in 2013 was the ushering out of the (mainly) Labour coalition government whose policies brought the country not only a more small-scale solar-friendly Renewable Energy Target (RET), but also the carbon tax and, before that, the Solar Flagships program for large-scale solar. The government that ousted them seems set on winding back much of infrastructure (including the RET) that was set up to move Australia towards a cleaner energy mix, with what appears to be a thinly veiled cynicism about the benefits of having such a mix and more of an affinity for the country’s incumbent utilities and their ‘affordable energy’–i.e. coal and gas. In fact, it is questionable whether these technologies will remain affordable as fuel prices rise (with Queensland again the case in point).

It’s not clear what 2014 will bring, with the RET to be reviewed and the government apparently bent on undoing virtually all of the work done by the previous government to promote renewables in Australia–and with no clear plans for an alternative. But there is still a lot of hope in the air for the industry, knowing that the mainstreaming of rooftop solar is an inevitable thing–not a matter of if, but when. A number of reports released throughout the year are optimistic for the long term, both about the situation locally in Australia and throughout the globe. But what form things will take for solar PV in the interim is as of yet unclear.

Check out a whole year in solar PV system prices

Solar Choice keeps track of solar PV system prices with its monthly Solar PV Price index articles. Find the archive here.

© 2013 Solar Choice Pty Ltd

James Martin II