Time to push Big Solar into political spotlight

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A new survey reveals Australians want to see large-scale solar plants in Australia very soon. But what are our politicians doing to make it happen?

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In the last three months, members of 40 groups across the country have spent many hours talking to people in their communities about big solar as part of 100% Renewable’s Big Solar Poll. At shopping centres, football games, at people’s doors and even at car part swap meets, volunteers have showed over 8000 people pictures of solar power stations operating in Spain and the US and captured their responses.

With our national identity so tied to a sun-drenched country, using our vast solar resource to power our industry and our homes just makes sense for Australians.

So the results were emphatic: 94 per cent of the 12,000 people surveyed supported building big solar plants in Australia. In fact, it was such a no-brainer that many people were surprised to learn that while the Chinese and Americans are building 500 megawatt solar plants, Australia’s largest completed project is a little over 1 megawatt.

Interestingly, a similarly large amount supported the idea of a government fund to help get those plants built. While people understand that the private sector will do the heavy lifting, they also expect the government to provide leadership and funding to make it happen.

While these seem extraordinary figures, they are in the same ball park as other polls that have tested support for renewable energy, such as one run by Essential Research last year that found 89 per cent support for renewable energy.

Renewable energy in general, and solar energy in particular, is wildly popular.

So while big solar may have captured the imagination of the public, can it also capture the imagination of our political leaders?

Today, a team of 30 volunteers have travelled to Canberra to meet with MPs – including key coalition figures Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey and Malcolm Turnbull – to brief them on the results of the poll. Our message to these politicians will be simple: your constituents are dead keen to see big solar plants in Australia very soon and we want to know what you’re doing to make it happen.

We will make it clear to Tony Abbott that blocking the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the billions of dollars of private investment that will flow from it is bad for renewable energy.

The central plank of the Coalition’s Direct Action plan for large-scale renewables is to create a ‘band’ within the Renewable Energy Target to support emerging technologies such as big solar. While recognition of the value of these technologies is welcome, it should not come at the expense of other renewables, like wind, that are cost-effective right now.

Ironically, this is the same charge the coalition is throwing at the CEFC – that it won’t build a single kilowatt of new renewable capacity beyond what would already be built by the RET.

So this is a message we will deliver also to the government, Greens and cross-benchers – that all projects supported by the CEFC should be additional to the RET. If private industry is already able to build the 20 per cent of renewable capacity by 2020, then with up to $100 billion of private investment set to be generated by the CEFC we should be able to aim far higher than our current target.

The CEFC sets us up to expand the RET far beyond 20 per cent by 2020, and we will be looking for all sides of politics to work for this outcome when the RET comes up for review later this year.

On solar PV, the game-changing transformation of the solar PV market has not been kind to the Direct Action Plan’s solar PV component. While it assumed that 275,000 solar PV systems would be installed by the end of 2012, the spectacular reality will be almost three times higher with 677,000 systems having been installed to the end of April this year.

It may well be that the direct payments to system purchasers they propose is no longer appropriate by the time the Coalition could take government in the second half of next year. Far better would be a system of feed-in tariffs to drive strong growth at utility and commercial scale and provide a fair payment to householders who feed power back into the grid.

We look forward to the opportunities for increased ambition in the Direct Action plan that the falling prices of solar PV have provided the Coalition.

It will be an exhausting day for our team, with nearly 50 meetings in total, but we’re confident that by the end of the day the community’s call for big solar will be resounding in parliamentarians’ ears.

We’ll also look forward to reporting back to RenewEconomy readers on the responses we receive from our leaders.

Andrew Bray is Communications Coordinator at 100% Renewable. To find out what Australians are saying about Big Solar, click here.

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