Ensuring solar (plus storage) equals social progress

We know solar's march has so far benefited low-income households but to continue this symbiosis needs a bit of know-how - otherwise we'll remain stuck behind the Kiwis on liveability measures.

Australia is a great place to live. We hear it time and again. For the most part, it lives up to the hype. However, the fact is that many Australians are unable to live in a home that is either fit for purpose or affordable. 

That’s where the relentless march of solar power can help to deliver social progress for Australia.

The latest report from the Social Progress Imperative confirmed yet again that Australia is one of the top 10 places to live in the world. However, it’s not all good news. The report highlights a fundamental problem in two categories, 'shelter' and 'ecosystem sustainability'. Shelter includes the availability of affordable housing, access to electricity and the quality of electricity supply.

The bad news includes the most vulnerable’s lack of access to appropriate housing, and relatively high energy costs. Ecosystem sustainability is a topic for another time, but the score is disturbingly bad for such a rich country. The other shocking problem is that these two issues have left Australia nine places behind New Zealand, overall. This is bigger than the Bledisloe Cup – it’s time for action!

In Australia, the popular press has often portrayed solar panels as eco-bling for the rich, subsidised by the poor. We have been told in the past that because low-income households couldn’t afford the upfront cost of panels but were paying the cost of ‘subsidies’ on their electricity bills – they were cross-subsidising the wealthy. However, this is far from truthful. In fact, the highest penetration of solar panels in Victoria is not in the left-leaning wealthy inner-suburbs, but growth areas like Wyndham.

Green Energy Trading’s recent report found that “in almost all cases, the top 10 postcodes in each state (with solar installations) had an average taxable income lower than the state average”, and regional areas have much higher concentrations of installations (in the more populated states) than in the capital cities.

So, how could we improve Australia’s score on 'shelter', beat the Kiwis, and do it all without creating a bulging black hole in our cumulative budgets? Well, enabling new ways for the private sector to finance solar, storage and energy efficiency for the residential market helps. Thank you, Clean Energy Finance Corporation.

Another way is to change energy market regulations, as per the Australian Energy Market Commission's ‘Power of Choice’ report, which advocated (among many other things) disaggregating energy services behind the customer’s meter – this would support new business models and greatly increase competition in the market. Judging by the solar experience, low-income households are likely to be the first to take up these new offers. Government subsidies wouldn’t be needed to make them compelling, particularly as we face massive reticulated gas price increases, making the switch to all-electric homes financially sensible.

Where customers currently receive energy concessions, and benefit from lower cost energy services, governments could start diverting those massive energy concession budgets towards preventative support services instead. On-bill repayment mechanisms would add fuel to this competitive fire. We wait for public policy announcements in the lead up to Victorian elections with high expectations.

In the meantime, we don’t have to wait for governments to change the rules before we act. We can leverage new energy models that bridge the commercial and social divide, to democratise the energy market through increased citizen-participation (we have one of our own for solar – check out www.thepeoplessolar.com). The one thing guaranteed to drive innovation in a staid and complacent marketplace is for customers to stop buying, and start cooperating. Just ask the music industry.

In terms of storage, the story is that it’s not cost-effective yet but there is movement at the station. Vector, one of the largest energy companies across the Tasman, recently completed a pilot program offering leased solar with storage packages ('SunGenie') to the residential market, paving the way for integrated behind-the-meter energy services.

Democratising our energy market, with customers having a greater say in how they generate, store and use energy, provides a foundation for ensuring that 'solar plus storage' equals social progress. But once the 'pro-sumer' label gets peeled off, we can see some democracies are working better than others. If the social intelligence isn’t built in to the new energy supply models, we may just end up with new technologies but the same old story. New Zealand would retain the bragging rights then, too – that just won’t do!

We need energy for the people, by the people – a new democratic story for our energy supply, which ensures the whole clean energy system is financially and socially sustainable, and bridges the historical tensions between left and right, no matter how rich or poor.

Alex Houlston is director and co-founder at Energy for the People and The People’s Solar.

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