Solar spin clouds the true energy picture

The rapid uptake of solar energy by Australian households needs to be viewed as part of a bigger story.

The cunning PR people at the Australian Bureau of Statistics know which media buttons to press.

They kicked off their media statement on their new energy survey with “one in five Australian households use solar energy” and, sure enough, that’s what the major media outlets all ran with.

As I am given to pointing out, context is a wonderful thing and what is still more wonderful is how little of it appeals to Australian mainstream journalists and therefore how little is provided to the community.

A quick glance at the ABS data throws up this, for example: in an environment where we are faced with substantial gas price increases and there is a fevered debate about whether or not to allow full-on new gas exploration and development in states like Victoria and New South Wales, two-thirds of capital city households use the fuel.

Or this: in an environment where the retail costs of electricity and gas are one of the highest topics of community conversation and often angry political argument, roughly half of householders do not consider energy star ratings when buying clothes dryers, dishwashers, washing machines and fridges.

Now let’s get down and dirty with the data: the total power the million or so households using solar PVs produce is roughly 4,000 gigawatt hours a year at present -- yes, double what it was a couple of years ago, but still less than two per cent of all the electricity generated in Australia.

Still more to the point, more than 9 million residential power consumers (most of them in the big cities) consume some 55,000 gigawatt hours of electricity a year -- down from 60,000 GWh in 2010-11 -- as householders struggle with their budgets.

One of the larger conundrums of supply at the moment is whether, and to what extent, millions of households respond to much higher gas bills over the rest of this decade by switching to electricity.

And given that, if they do switch in any substantial way, most of the added energy demand will be after dark, solar power is not the get out of jail card.

Yes, yes, I know, battery storage is just round the corner -- but the chances that this is a corner we will be reaching any time before 2020 are not exactly stellar.

The real point here is that genuine communication about the energy state of affairs is a premium need in Australia and it is in ludicrously short supply when you consider the billions of dollars at stake in terms of investor outlays, community expenditure and business costs (in an environment where rather a lot of business is feeling poorly).

The cause of higher quality communication related to energy is not helped when government agency PR persons and a compliant media cherry pick a pop stat and run with it.

What is happening with solar PV in Australia is interesting and not unimportant, but it is, by a long way, not the main game.

Part of the problem is that interpreting data is not easy and less so when you don’t have a handle on the broader statistics.

Take gas consumption. While it is true that the national average for gas connections is 50 per cent, it is 83 per cent in Victoria (where, the Grattan Institute tells us the biggest impact of rising prices will be felt this year) and 43 per cent in NSW (where the harsh impact of threatened winter gas supply problems will be felt by state manufacturers who employ 300,000 people).

Take solar water heating as another example. Only 10 per cent of Australian homes use solar to heat their water, while 94 per cent have electricity or gas systems.

Hey, that’s doesn’t add up! That’s because, as the ABS explains, some homes have more than one water heating system or boosters for the PV system.

And here’s another one: 49 per cent of homes use reverse cycle air-conditioning and another 10 per cent use a refrigerated system that cools only. The national picture is skewed because half of Jacqui Lambie’s fellow Tasmanians don’t have air-conditioning at all.

Now think about this: about 5 million of these air-conditioners have been installed since 2000 and most of them don’t come within cooee of best energy efficiency standards. How many of us this summer holidays will go shopping for coolers and how many will have efficiency on our minds rather than relief for the lowest possible pay-out?

Buried in this ABS stuff, you see, is a really big story: energy efficiency is much more important to Australians than solar PVs in terms of bringing down bills and contributing to the national desire, shown by opinion polls, to see carbon emissions reduced. The Bureau report highlights that far too many of us are either energy illiterate or just don’t give a damn.

It’s one thing to emote environmentally by speaking up for wind farms (which few urban Australians will ever see let alone live alongside) but another entirely to walk the talk.

One last stat in this context: the ABS says 68 per cent of our households have some form of insulation, 14 per cent don’t and 18 per cent of occupiers don’t even know if they have it.

More than one in five Queensland households, some of the country’s biggest energy guzzlers and buyers of air-conditioners, don’t have it.

As they say, go figure. But can we hope for the ABS to stop playing PR games and for the media to dig a bit below the spoon-fed headline?

Keith Orchison, director of consultancy Coolibah Pty Ltd, publisher of the This is Power blog and editor of OnPower newsletter, was chief executive of two national energy associations from 1980 to 2003. He was made a member of the Order of Australia in 2004 for services to the energy industry.