Who Are The Early Adopters?

Three months ago I was letterboxing in Broadmeadows for the by-election there and was struck by the number of rooftop solar panels I saw. The numbers were around the national average. Given that this is one of the poorest areas of the Melbourne metropolitan area that seemed to undermine the view that subsidies for solar are a form of middle class welfare

Given that Melbourne gets less sunlight than any other large Australian city, you’d expect installations to be lower here in general, let alone in an area like that. Moreover, as the election result a few days later amply demonstrated, it’s not an area known for high environmental commitment.

Since then data has emerged to support my small sample size observation. Epping is slightly wealthier than Broadmeadows, but not by much, although the average age is a bit lower it’s still not an area one normally associates with environmental activism.

Which raises the question for me: What is motivating people in these areas to install so many panels. I’m sure a mix of motivations are in play – it’s usually that way. Environmental concern and a belief the savings on electricity will pay for the scheme in the long run would have to be up there. However, I doubt that’s the whole story. If it was there would be a lot more panels in Fitzroy.

I suspect that something more subtle and interesting is going on. Maybe it’s a sort of status symbol, but maybe it’s a way of marking one’s independence. Of course people with grid connected panels are not truly independent – unless they’ve got battery back-up if the grid goes down their lights go off. Nevertheless, its possible that people feel more in control of their lives if they’re producing some of their own power. The desire for that control is fairly universal, but maybe even higher on the urban fringe.

I’d love to see some research on motivations here, and I’d be grateful if anyone can point me to some if it’s been done.

However, I think these questions are relevant for science other than psychology. At the moment almost no  grid households connected have battery back-up. It’s too expensive. Yes one might feel marvelously smug if everyone else has a blackout and you can still watch TV, but the cost is so high I’m not aware of anyone even catering to that market. However, if it really is a desire for independence that is driving solar installations then maybe there’s a market for people who are on the grid, but would like battery back-up for their solar panels anyway. If that’s the case, it’s unlikely to be an Australian-only phenomenon. However, the strength of our sunlight means it’s might manifest here more than in other places. If so, it’s a foot in the door for new technologies, in the same way that niche markets of remote houses were what got solar panels off the ground in the first place; building a critical mass that eventually allowed the spread of photovoltaics to the suburbs of major cities.

There might also be some electoral significance to this. The NSW government has just retrospectively slashed the feed in tariff* for people who’ve already installed solar panels. I’m guessing they’re thinking that these people are all environmentalists who’d never vote for them anyway. But apparently Western Sydney is the heartland of installations there as well. They might find they’ve just infuriated 120,000 households, many of whom possibly did vote for them, often in seats they won for the first time ever this year.

*As has been noted at Crikey, but not on the original site, this article uses a shorthand which gives a very inaccurate impression of the physics of electricity. Photovoltaics, like any other form of electrical power production, do not create electrons. Rather they provide electromotive force which causes charge to flow, with energy transmitted in the motion.

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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