Solar Makes A Home

Arriving home from some shopping today I found a man reading my meter. I expressed surprise, since I thought part of the benefit of smart readers was the cost saving in being able to read them remotely. He said the power companies seem to consider it necessary to do one or two on site checks to verify the figures they are getting. In the process he showed me how I can read the meter myself.

In the time since the last check I have used 305Kwh. My panels have produced 831Kwh, so I’ll be getting quite a substantial credit rather than a bill. Obviously this is over what has been a particularly sunny summer, and my housemates were away for a chunk of the time, which would have kept usage down. Still, so much for those who say solar doesn’t work.

Which brings me to the WA Greens proposal to install solar panels on 30,000 public and community houses. In one sense it is remarkable that it takes a third party to suggest this. In a climate as sunny as Perth’s rooftop solar is now economic even without feed in tarrifs. Even ignoring the environmental benefits this is an efficient way of transferring wealth to some of the poorest members of the community, for whom the reduction in electricity bills will no doubt lift a huge weight off their shoulders. The economics work even better for a state government than for individuals because a) installation will be cheaper if numerous neighbouring houses are done at once and b) the government can borrow far more cheaply than private citizens. Presumably a few houses are so heavily shaded they’re not suitable, but I doubt this is a large proportion.

I do, however, have one reservation about this policy. I’m not sure why they are only proposing to install 1.5kw systems. Only the first 1.5kw of home systems are subsidised, so for a long time this was what most people installed. However, with the plunging cost of solar panels means that it now doesn’t cost that much more to go to a 3kw system instead. The extra installation and inverter costs are tiny.

Public houses are usually small, and some would lack the roof space (or at least the unshaded roof space) to install larger systems, but where the room exists I’d think it makes far more sense to go for a larger system. Moreover, while low income earners would certainly appreciate losing several hundred dollars off their electricity bill each year, there is something really special about actually getting a credit, which becomes quite likely when you get to a 3Kw system. I think psychologically, for people who don’t own their residence and know they probably never will, the experience of having the house generate money which is theirs to keep could be a quite powerful way of making them feel like this is a home, not just a house.

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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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