Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull may have done more for renewable energy in Australia than he is given credit for.
Turnbull’s refusal to tackle the climate deniers and the fossil fuel ideologues within his own Coalition government has helped spark the biggest rush to rooftop solar the world has seen, and a powerful economic force that will quickly unravel the business model of so-called baseload coal.
Since Turnbull came into power in late 2015 – after unseating Tony Abbott, but not his predecessor’s climate and energy policies – the rate of uptake of rooftop solar in Australia has more than doubled.
It is now running at record levels of around 120MW a month, with 18,000 new installations on households and businesses around the country in March, and a total of 55,000 installations, and a record 351MW of capacity installed on rooftops in the first three months of the year.
The boom is occurring around the country, which now has 6.8GW of rooftop solar (systems under 100kW) and a total of 1.85 million different homes and businesses.
At this rate, it will exceed even the most optimistic official forecasts of more than 21GW of rooftop solar by 2035, and will likely be closer to forecasts such as Bloomberg new Energy Finance, which sees 33GW by 2040, when it will provide 25 per cent of total demand.
Eddie Springer, the project manager at the family-owned Springers Solar in Brisbane, says the rush to solar is mostly economics, and partly driven by politics.
“The more the media talk about the pushback on renewables, the more people want it,” he tells RenewEconomy. “The more it is in the media, whether good, bad or indifferent, it’s all good publicity, because the economics stack up.”
Springer says a recent installation at a Brisbane furniture warehouse will deliver a three year payback, and even accountancy firms are getting in on the act.
“If you can sell solar to an accountant, you can sell it to anyone. They (the accountants) are starting to spread the word, tell their clients, and we are getting referrals from them.”
The shift should not be surprising. The political deadlock and the lack of any clear policy division has contributed to a huge surge in electricity prices since the Coalition scrapped the carbon price.
Households can comfortably get a four-to-six year payback, and they are looking to take a leaf out of Turnbull’s playbook and put as much solar as they can on the roof, with an eye to the future (storage and electric vehicles), and because it makes financial sense.
Even a top quality system translates into a cost of no more than 10c/kWh, while most consumers are paying close to 40c/kWh for their power, depending on the scale of fixed network charges and their level of consumption. So the purchase makes sense even when it is exporting most of the capacity to the grid.
The consequences are clear: the rapid and accelerating uptake of rooftop solar by Australian households and business will accelerate the very transition that the coal boosters and ideologues are trying to stop.
And that transition is the shift to distributed generation, where rooftop solar, battery storage, the ability to share energy and operate demand management becomes the dominant part of the energy system.
This shift to distributed generation has been a feature of recent landmark studies, such as those by the CSIRO and network owners, and by chief scientist Alan Finkel. It is now a major theme among even the conservative energy institutions that run Australia’s grid, and set the rules and regulate it.
The Australian Energy Market Operator, for instance, says that by 2050, up to 45 per cent of all demand in Australia will be served by distributed generation – primarily rooftop solar and battery storage but also demand response. Networks owners and generators agree. BNEF sees that level by 2040.
This is not a market in which coal-fired generation, new or old, can prosper. Not only is coal fired generation dirty and increasingly expensive, it is hopelessly inflexible.
“These changes in the load profile result in an economic and operating challenge for continuous baseload,” AEMO notes in a recent report, adding that what is needed to accommodate this transition is highly flexible capacity, and new rules to encourage it.
The fact that the coal boosters are scoring a massive own goal should not be surprising.
Their push for new coal generation, or even extending the life of existing coal generators, is based on a stunning mix of lies, ignorance and ideology.
There is a refusal to accept the basic economics of renewables versus fossil fuels, and an inability to comprehend how this can be integrated into the system and ultimately deliver a smarter, cleaner and cheaper grid.
And of course, climate change and other environmental impacts are completely ignored. It is what what Ian Dunlop, the former chair of the Australian Coal Association, laments as “pigheaded arrogance and failure of imagination.”
Consumers, large and small, now know better – whether it be the new owners of the Whyalla steelworks, the biggest telco company in the country, the biggest brewer, or owners of zinc refiners, massive greenhouses, or smaller manufacturing facilities.
Still, the right wing rails against battery storage, against demand management, and even electric vehicles, even as AEMO’s own conclusions suggest a smarter, faster and cheaper grid, if the rules can be adapted.
It’s somewhat ironic that households are taking a leaf out of Turnbull’s own playbook. Systems are getting larger – they now average 7kW, and the 10kW to 20kW sector is the fastest growing in the country, and these are going on households, farms and small businesses.
According to Warwick Johnston from SunWiz, around one in eight new solar systems were accompanied by battery storage in 2017, and one in six will add battery storage in 2018.
A total of 33,000 battery storage systems are expected in 2018, but this number will surge in coming years as costs fall, an inevitable result of the support being shown for large scale rollouts of storage and virtual power plants.
Turnbull has installed 14kW of rooftop solar on his Point Piper home and also has about 14kWh of battery storage, masterminded by his son. Many households are going a similar route, not just because the economics are clear, but ahead of new technologies such as storage and electric vehicles.
Were does this rush to rooftop solar leave us? With a highly distributed grid and less room for inflexible coal plants. The business model for coal is being destroyed faster than the Coalition and the fossil fuel industry can think of ways to prop it up.
And the public has lost faith – in the politics, and its stench of ideology and vested interests, and they are rapidly losing faith in big corporations, represented in this industry by the big utilities, and their overpowering greed.
The biggest risk is highlighted by the network owners themselves. If the market does not adapt, and embrace renewables and change the rules to allow for this smarter, faster, cleaner technology, and deliver the cost reductions it promises, then the current trend of load defection will translate into grid defection.