Australia was the world’s residential solar PV leader in 2011

Australia led the world in residential rooftop solar photovoltaic (PV) installations for the year 2011, according to data from Australia’s own Clean Energy Regulator and the International Energy Agency (IEA). The news comes as a surprise even to those who have witnessed the amazingly fast-paced growth of the solar PV industry here: despite Australia’s comparatively small population, 2011 figures topped those of leading solar nations such as Japan, China, the United States and even the world’s long-standing solar giant Germany.

With 785 megawatts (MW) installed in 2011, Australia came out ahead (albeit just barely) of global leaders Germany and Japan, who installed around 759MW worth of rooftop systems. Australia also had a greater number of systems (392,500) installed than any other country in the same year. The nation still trails a number of other countries, however, in both cumulative installed capacity to date as well as total power produced annually by solar PV. Germany, for instance, generates approximately 10% of its power via its rooftop installations; by comparison, Australia gets only about 1% of its annual power from the sun.

The large number of installations of smaller systems can be attributed to the federal and state solar PV incentive structures, which are skewed towards smaller systems–the federal government offers extra-large rebates on solar systems of 1.5 kilowatts (kW) through its Solar Credits scheme, and state government Solar Feed-in Tariff programs (if available) usually cap eligibility at 5kW or 10kW. Ric Brazzale, president of the REC Agents Association, highlighted this in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald: ”It took me by surprise that we were first, because Germany and Italy are so big. … Australian support for solar has had a lot of support at the residential level, and all political parties in the country have supported residential solar. Elsewhere in the world, most policy is geared towards much larger-scale commercial projects.”

Another factor that contributed to the growth in 2011 was the demise or reduction of the majority of these state-based schemes. Application rushes before the closure or scaling back of schemes in New South Wales, Western Australia, South Australia, and Victoria drove huge numbers of homes and businesses to go solar. Last-minute rushes have been less pronounced in countries such as Germany, where Feed-in Tariff reductions have been predictable, gradual, and implemented on a national scale.

Even at the relatively small scale of deployment of solar PV here, Australia is already beginning to reap the benefits of these ‘distributed’ generation systems. In combination with energy efficiency measures, Australia’s rooftop solar PV systems have been credited in part for the falling level of electricity demand seen in the National Electricity Market (NEM) over the past few years. System owners do not need to purchase as much power from the electricity grid.

Even with the reduction or elimination of state-based incentives for rooftop solar systems, installation numbers are expected to continue increasing into the future, due mainly to the rising power prices and the falling price of solar PV technology itself. The arrival of ‘solar leasing‘ schemes in the Australian is also expected to have a major impact on the residential market.

With the residential side of the industry fairly well-established, commercial solar power and utility-scale solar power are widely viewed as the next big frontiers in solar PV. Currently, the ACT, with its Reverse-Auction Feed-in Tariff, is the only state to offer an incentive scheme specifically for large-scale solar power. The federal government offers incentives in the form of tradable Large-Scale Generation Certificates (LGCs) for each megawatt-hour (MWh) of power produced by large-scale renewable energy generators through the Renewable Energy Target (RET).

© 2012 Solar Choice Pty Ltd

James Martin II