Our Green Gurus

Guest bloggers share all you need to know to lead a greener lifestyle.

Solar homes are better


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By guest-blogger Sarah Niklas, a PhD student studying pathways towards a low (or no) carbon Australia.

I’ve recently moved from Germany to Australia to study how quickly Australia can transition to a country that produces radically less or even no carbon emissions at all to run its economy.

Germany has little sun – though some strong incentives to encourage solar power generation – but I’ve got a passion for how much further this technology can go.

Recently, at an industry gathering in Sydney about the future of energy supply I was amazed to learn how much change can come when technology prices drop. Solar experts showed how solar power has boomed, quickly becoming mainstream, and how this shifts power to those who have it and is already shaking up the energy industry.

Dr. Muriel Watt of the Australian Photovoltaic Association said that last year the price of photovoltaics (PV) hit the ‘grid parity’ milestone – being equal to the cost of buying electricity from the grid, but the energy sector “simply does not understand the implication of what is happening”. She calls solar PV a “disruptive technology”, meaning it will force changes to the way electricity companies do business.

As this clean green technology becomes more prevalent it will create challenges for both electricity retailers and the network companies that look after the poles and wires. The grid needs to be prepared for more renewable energies feeding it – Australia has to get ready to move electricity around in totally different ways.

What I’ve learnt is that society doesn’t need to wait for the change to be made by politics or economics. The solar feed-in tariffs or solar buy-back schemes encouraged customers to sell their own solar PV power back to the grid. “These market mechanisms for renewable energy were useful”, Gordon Weiss (Energetics) admits: “But would you really want to sell your energy once these buy-back rates are lower than your retail tariff?”

Looking into a crystal ball, here are Gordon’s top trends for houses with their own solar power generators.

Homeowners who want solar power are currently ‘trapped in the grid’ – to free them, we need to do things differently. In the future we will need to soak up the surplus of energy that is generated in the off-peak time, usually between 9am-4pm. For example, as people shift to electric cars, they can charge off solar systems in the day when people are at work.

Let’s find ways to store that energy. Batteries are great for energy storage, and will also help solar power deal with cloudy and wet days. Batteries are currently too expensive for ordinary people, but Gordon says, “This is where the government can help and provide incentives”.

Storing energy and using it where it is generated has the added advantage of avoiding losses. Being connected to the electricity network is expensive, and adds hidden costs to many renewable energy sources like wind, hydro, biogas. Solar power can generate the power right where it is needed, none is lost coming down the wires.

Right now, the costs for conventional energy from fossil fuels are coming close to the price for energy from the sun for central generation and are already lower than retail prices. The talks I attended said that rather than increasing costs by adding solar power, it is the price of fossil fuels that will rise. Unsubsidised solar power is already cheaper than getting it from the network. I believe that this will have a huge impact on Australia – all the houses with solar power will be acting like one big energy generator, and that is cheaper than coal!

The talks Sarah attended on photovoltatics were presented at the Australian Alliance to Save Energy’s Summer Study on Energy Efficiency and Decentralised Energy in Sydney. For more info seeL www.a2se.org.au