Solar panels (for residential, commercial & utility projects) are here to stay: SMH

Even in the absence of state-based feed-in tariff incentives, solar panel installations continue to grow in Australia. This represents a major, irreversible shift in the way that Australians look at solar power, suggests SMH’s Peter Hannam in a recent article in which he spoke with a number of electricity industry players & commentators about the growing uptake of solar photovoltaic (PV) technology and attitudes towards it.

The fact that residential solar systems have continued to be installed across the country even after feed-in tariffs have been closed or reduced for new applicants in nearly every state is not necessarily news: The APVA recently found that over 1 gigawatt (GW) of solar was installed in 2012/2013 alone, and the number of commercial solar power installations has likewise been soaring without subsidies for power production. As further evidence, Australia passed the much vaunted ‘1 million solar homes‘ mark sometime last year, and numerous reports have forecast the ascendancy of solar as a means of power generation (McKinsley and Goldman Sachs among them), thanks to the falling cost of installing a system and rising retail electricity prices. It is nevertheless encouraging for those in the solar industry (not to mention those who support the clean energy cause) to see the trend acknowledged in the Sydney Morning Herald by major industry players.

The concept of rooftop solar power is a significant diversion from the centralised model of power generation that is the norm in the electricity industry, and the rapid expansion of this ‘disruptive’ technology has not come without challenges for utility companies. In contrast to coal or gas plants, these small-scale, ‘distributed’ systems (generally 100kW or less in capacity), although beneficial for their owners, can cause potentially problematic, localised voltage fluctuations in network infrastructure. What’s more, distributed rooftop solar has the potential to eat into utility profits, being partially credited with (or blamed for) falling electricity demand throughout the country. Despite this, it seems more likely that utilities will be forced to adapt to the new reality than for solar’s forward momentum to be halted. Solar PV, as University of Queensland researcher Paul Meredith memorably says in Hannam’s article, is ‘a tide, a big wave, that’s going to be difficult to turn back’.

The inspiration for the SMH article seems have been prompted by the announcement last week that one of the federal government’s utility-scale Solar Flagship projects–the 2-section Nyngan Solar Farm in Nyngan and Broken Hill, NSW–has secured enough funding to finally go ahead. The 155 megawatt (MW) Nyngan project (developed by AGL) will dwarf the current largest solar plant in Australia (the 10 megawatt Greenough River Solar Farm)–and also gives a hint of what the future might hold. AGL CEO Michael Fraser is optimistic, and believes that plants like this make more sense than the smaller-scale residential solar systems. Not only are large-scale projects “the most cost-effective way to develop solar”, he says, they also avoid the issue of over-concentration of rooftop systems in areas without sufficient infrastructure to support them.

Meanwhile, in another positive sign for large-scale PV in Australia, developers of the Moree Solar Farm have revealed that this project will proceed after all, albeit with a slightly smaller plant (56MW) than originally intended. The Moree Solar Farm was the first ‘winner’ of funding through the Solar Flagships scheme, but lost out when it failed to meet the deadline for securing matched funding for the project. The Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC)/Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) will provide $60m in financing for the project–the possibility of which was foreshadowed nearly a year ago.

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James Martin II