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A Million Roofs Forgotten

illustration only
by Simon Mansfield
Gerroa, Australia (SPX) May 24, 2011
The NSW solar scandal just gets better and better. The government's retrospective commercial legislation to cut the solar feed in tariff will now seek to define a hardship loss for some solar home owners. What that criteria will be - the NSW government has yet to decide as it scrambles to make policy on the run.

Meanwhile, the newly elected NSW state government of Barry O'Farrell has come out swinging - seeking to attack small businesses - many of whom are new start ups by local electricians gearing up for the carbon and economy revolution. It alleges that they have tried to cheat by doing dodgy installations. But all they are finding are a few missing stickers and the occasional shonky tradesman ripping off homeowners as some tradies have tried to do since we invented fridges and toilets.

Was it ever actually bad public policy. That's a question I've had to reevaluate. In our situation in Gerroa (pictured) we have a small 1.25 KW systems. The answer is a resounding yes that we want to maximize our return by reducing power consumption and do our bit to reduce the the need for expensive new base load power stations.

And nowadays we turn off our low watt lightbulbs when we leave the room, turn the computers on and off over the day, and turn off the wall of LEDs from TVs, DVDs and Wii boxes - that we previously left in standby. Many of these devices are a few years old and don't meet new standby power standards - and turning them off is good for us and good for the electricity companies who really don't want to build expensive new power stations.

Meanwhile, the power we make off the roof goes straight into our house most of the time - or the neighbour next door or across the street - those electrons don't get far before a local load chews them up. Line loss is as close to zero as you can practically get. Saving the power companies money from supplying us with power we don't need.

NSW along with the other states and the Federal government have invested significant amounts of resources into building a solar economy - local installers, testers, certifiers and supply chains that cover the nation and reach out to Asia, Europe and America.

It takes years to build power plants - be they coal or nuclear - or install a million homes with solar panels on their roofs.

By retrospectively cutting the gross feed in tariff from 60 cents to 40 cents - the government is destroying not only its own reputation but the good name of an industry based on local tradespeople who in most cases voted for the new conservative government.

None of the others States - as they move current schemes to new schemes that are based on today's solar prices - are retrospectively breaking their existing power purchase agreements with households - that were entered into 2009 and 2010 when solar prices were higher.

Solar in Australia will be at 1:1 home/grid by 2015. That means it will be the same price for householders and business to make power on their roof as it does to buy it out the grid. And quite possibly cheaper if governments keep letting power companies gouge their customers with never ending prices rises for grid power.

Barry Attacks Small Business For Political Gain

Meanwhile, it's a complete beat up that the NSW solar installation industry is dodgy.

The industry is developing quickly with lots of local electricians getting trained and certified. The industry is based on small business people living in towns across NSW working hard to start up new businesses and get ready for the shift from coal to solar.

The great thing about renewables is that they are job rich. The industry comprises a vast supply chain of trained people earning good money in their local communities and not being forced down the mines in outback Australia to line the pockets of foreign investors while leaving their families at home for weeks at a time.

To throw this industry under the bus just as it reaches the first stages of maturing into a long term growth sector is a far worse public policy outcome - than compared to front ending the investment via the 60 cent tariff - that encouraged 140,00 home owners and local businesses to put solar on their roofs - by working with government to invest lots of their own money in the process as well. In rural Australia many farmers invested upwards of $80,000 of their own money on 10KW wind and solar systems.

There is no argument that government rebates and the like need to move onto a new solar price point with different tariffs for new installations. But the current crop of early adopters invested in solar at 2009/2010 panel prices.

And that investment by everyday people and the government is what paid for the development of a new long term industry and the training of thousands of people.

The industry is highly regulated with detailed certification processes and strict government penalties for non compliance with critical electrical works. Every installation is signed off by certified installation checkers who have done household connection compliance checks for years.

Moreover, the issue is no longer about the current solar houses - it's about the thousands of people who have gone into the solar industry for the long term prospects that will see panels put on millions of roofs over the next 20 years.

The newly elected NSW Government should set up an upper house committee to properly review the scheme - its pros and cons - and let time make the problem of saving face go away.

Such a committee should also work towards establishing a long term scheme that offers a fair and equitable exchange between all parties and ensures that the lights stay on in NSW for a price people can afford.

Solar is critical to that end - and the government needs to think about its long term policy responsibilities and forget about trying to hurt and blame homeowners and small businesses who have in 99.9% of the time acted honestly in response to a government initiative that all sides of politics supported without any dissent whatsoever when in was set up in 2009.

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