(Update: the WA government has reversed its decision for a retrospective cut in solar tariffs. “Quite simply, we got this decision wrong and we have to fix it,” Premier Barnett said in a statement. “We have listened, and we appreciate the commitment that many people have made to take up renewable energy, like solar power.)”
Dear Australian State Governments,
This is a call to engage with solar industry. Previously you’ve treated solar power like a vote-buying activity that can be turned on and off as it pleases you. You’ve designed unsustainable incentives and abrupt policy levers that have exacerbated both boom and bust. In doing so, you’ve attracted the favour of one million solar households, but now you risk the ire of 2.6 million angry voters.
The Western Australian Liberal Party proposes to halve the payments made to solar owners that invested over $500m of their own money on the back of a government promise. Have you forgotten the humiliating backdown forced upon Barry O’Farrell when he attempted to retrospectively reduce NSW solar owners entitlements? Had O’Farrell engaged with the solar industry, he would have found the $600m savings he wanted. Unlike O’Farrell, Premier Barnett can’t even point the finger at the opposition party – it was his own Liberal Party who promised solar owners a guaranteed amount, and now 70,000 solar households are being cheated (and 70,000 more threatened) all in order to save $51m.
The Australian people have come to expect that morality, ethics, and fairness are politically malleable terms. But voters detest political corruption and double standards. Premier Barnett complained of sovereign risk when it suited him, and now creates just that risk for any investor in Western Australia… even the very people he was elected to represent. Cynically, this could be seen as an attempt to undermine future solar deployment, so as to shore up the dividend WA earns from its electricity corporations, a hidden taxation that would be very politically sensitive were an issue made of it.
Do you know how many votes it takes to change an election outcome? Have you considered how politically engaged people are when a government has enticed them to invest thousands of dollars into a government-backed scheme only to halve their return on investment?
One in five households own a PV system in the federal seat of Hasluck, which was held by Ken Wyatt of the Liberal Party by a margin of 0.6%. 500 votes could decide whether Liberal candidate Ken Wyatt is thrown out. I presume 8704 solar voters won’t be excited by the WA Liberal Party halving their promised solar income, (plus another 8000 solar voters now scared their entitlements may be slashed at a whim). Eight federal seats (six of them currently held by the Liberal Party) could be decided by solar voters irate at the Liberal Party, plus another five seats (three of them held by the Liberal Party) threatened by the Liberal Party’s treatment of solar power.
Please now engage with the solar industry, and not just for your own sake.
In Germany, the government worked hand-in-hand with the solar industry to design incentives that would avoid painful boom-and-bust. This level of engagement means the German solar industry is prepared to discuss and develop measures to support the ongoing operation of a healthy electricity market and stable electricity network.
By contrast, Australian governments at the state and federal level have ignored the pleas of the solar industry by creating unsustainable incentives and abrupt policy levers that have exacerbated both boom and bust. In doing so, they’ve attracted the favour of one million solar households, but their votes are threatened by your retrospective actions. Had you listened to us then, the incentives you delivered would have cost far less, and you wouldn’t have this issue on the front page.
Now is your opportunity to engage with the solar industry, to form an alliance with the future of our country. Within 20 years, solar power will be Australia’s cheapest form of electricity – and as such it will underwrite the international competitiveness of Australia’s economy. Thankfully we have the best solar resource in the world. But solar power already provides cheaper electricity than residential and commercial electricity supplies, and thus provides people’s first real opportunity to successfully compete against the present electricity industry. In order to smoothly manage the inevitable transition posed by this disruptive technology, you will need the solar industry on side.
We represent the 2.4 Million people who have bought solar power, and the other 18 million people who will purchase solar in the next decade. Their interests are our interests. We’ve stood by them before, and now once more we stand. We will not accept retrospective changes to feed-in tariffs, which are unfair to existing solar owners, and which undermine future solar investment. We will not accept discriminatory tariffs, nor solar scapegoating.
The solar industry recognizes that solar power is an inevitable part of Australia’s future. But we foresee the upheavals that will occur if the transition is not well managed. The time is right for state and federal governments to recognize the part solar power will play in Australia’s future. Now is the time to engage with the solar industry. So that together we can smoothly transition away from a dated electricity model towards a future where there is solar on every rooftop.
Warwick Johnston is managing director of SunWiz. He is also chair of the PV Directorate of the Clean Energy Council (CEC), and sits on the CEC’s PV Leadership committee and Policy & Advisory Committee. Warwick also contributes to the Australian Solar Council and Australian PV Institute.