Make money while the sun shines

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Clean Energy - Derek Parker

FLICK the switch and the light — or the heater, or television, or air­con­di­tioner — comes on, cour­tesy of the na­tional grid that de­liv­ers elec­tric­ity to the vast ma­jor­ity of Aus­tralian homes. But the tra­di­tional model of a oneway flow of power is chang­ing, as gov­ern­ments seek to en­cour­age the use of non­fos­sil en­ergy sources and to de­crease the amount of power drawn from the grid sys­tem. Feed- in tar­iffs ( FITs) pro­vide the pos­si­bil­ity of con­sumers with ex­cess power be­ing able to con­trib­ute it to the grid as a way of de­fray­ing the cost of their power bill.

The idea is linked to the grow­ing use of so­lar- en­ergy pho­to­voltaic cells to pro­vide sup­ple­men­tal power by house­holds, such as for hot wa­ter sys­tems. FITs means that any power gen­er­ated by PV cells that is not used by the con­sumer is, in ef­fect, sold back to the grid to cover peak de­mand. The sys­tem works on a net ba­sis, with me­ters to cal­cu­late the gap be­tween power gen­er­ated and power used.

So far, only South Aus­tralia has a FIT sys­tem in op­er­a­tion; and it is South Aus­tralia which has the high­est pen­e­tra­tion of grid- con­nected PV cells. Ac­cord­ing to fig­ures de­rived from data pro­vided by the Aus­tralian Green­house Of­fice, at the end of last year 38.3 per cent of cus­tomers of ETSA Util­i­ties had the ca­pac­ity to re­turn ex­cess power to the grid.

The state with the next high­est pro­por­tion of power con­sumers with PV cells was Vic­to­ria, with 22.4 per cent, fol­lowed by NSW with 20.6 per cent and Queens­land with 10.8 per cent.

In the case of South Aus­tralia, ETSA Util­i­ties es­ti­mates that in the 12 months to Fe­bru­ary 2008 there was around 2.2 gi­gawatts of elec­tric­ity gen­er­ated by PV sys­tems fed into the grid on a FIT ba­sis.

The feed- in tar­iff, which is paid by the elec­tric­ity re­tailer as an off­set to to­tal costs, is set at a min­i­mum rate of 44 cents per kilo­watt hour, sub­stan­tially higher than the re­tail price of elec­tric­ity. The av­er­age PV sys­tem in­stalled in South Aus­tralia is 1.6 kilo­watts in ca­pac­ity and would usu­ally gen­er­ate over 2000 kilo­watt hours a year; on av­er­age around half the elec­tric­ity gen­er­ated by so­lar elec­tric­ity sys­tems is re­turned to the grid. If 1000 kilo­watt hours were re­turned to the grid, the owner would be el­i­gi­ble to re­ceive an off­set of $ 440.

Mind­ful of the suc­cess of the South Aus­tralian ex­pe­ri­ence, the Queens­land Gov­ern­ment has in­tro­duced a FIT sys­tem, which will be­gin op­er­a­tion on July 1 and will also pay a FIT rate of 44 cents per kilo­watt hour. An­other as­pect of the scheme will pro­vide an equiv­a­lent fi­nan­cial bonus for any so­lar- gen­er­ated power used by a con­sumer. Like the South Aus­tralian FIT sys­tem, the Queens­land scheme is guar­an­teed for 20 years.

‘‘ The up­front cost of a so­lar power sys­tem puts a lot of peo­ple off,’’ says Queens­land Pre­mier Anna Bligh. ‘‘ We hope that the So­lar Bonus Scheme will help off­set the ini­tial cost over time. The quar­terly bill will show how much elec­tric­ity a house­hold has used and how much elec­tric­ity has been fed into the grid, and if there is ex­cess credit in an ac­count at the end of each year, re­tail­ers will pay cash to the cus­tomer.’’

There are plans to in­tro­duce a FIT sys­tem in the ACT, af­ter the Ter­ri­tory gov­ern­ment an­nounced that it would sup­port a plan put for­ward by a back­bencher; the pro­posed leg­is­la­tion has re­ceived bi- par­ti­san sup­port. The ACT sys­tem will be a lit­tle dif­fer­ent to the South Aus­tralian and Queens­land mod­els, with con­sumers who put power into the grid re­ceiv­ing di­rect pay­ments from the re­tailer rather than a re­duc­tion in their bill. This is meant to make the value of their con­tri­bu­tion clearer and there­fore stim­u­late the adop­tion of al­ter­na­tive en­ergy op­tions.

All of th­ese schemes have been ap­plauded by Brooke Miller, re­gional di­rec­tor for BP So­lar Aus­trala­sia, which op­er­ates the largest man­u­fac­tur­ing plant of PV pan­els in the south­ern hemi­sphere, at its fa­cil­ity in Syd­ney’s Olympic Park.

‘‘ In Queens­land, we ex­pect that the num­ber of homes with so­lar power will in­crease dra­mat­i­cally sim­ply by recog­nis­ing the true value pro­vided by res­i­dents who gen­er­ate so­lar power,’’ she says. ‘‘ As a de­cen­tralised tech­nol­ogy, so­lar PV gen­er­ates power when and where it is con­sumed. It saves on in­fra­struc­ture costs such as for poles and wires re­quired to trans­port elec­tric­ity long dis­tances, which can be very sig­nif­i­cant — thou­sands of dol­lars to ac­com­mo­date the in­stal­la­tion of an air­con­di­tion­ing unit, by some es­ti­mates.

‘‘ We have seen from over­seas ex­pe­ri­ence that FIT sys­tems can be very suc­cess­ful in pro­mot­ing so­lar en­ergy. A FIT sys­tem in Ger­many, for in­stance, saw the level of so­lar en­ergy in­stalled grow from six megawatts in 1992 to over 840 megawatts at present.

‘‘ What we now need is ac­tion by Aus­tralia’s other gov­ern­ments if the risks posed by both the grow­ing de­mand for peak en­ergy and en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns are to be met.’’

Em­pow­ered: Brooke Miller says so­lar power saves grid elec­tric­ity as well as in­fra­struc­ture costs, such as for poles and wires

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