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The rise of the solar voter — they’re not where you think

Analysis shows where Australia’s solar panels are — and it’s not in the inner-city latte set. Some politicians may need to rethink their view on support for solar.

Solar panel home owner

For years, some politicians have wanted to dismiss rooftop solar PV (and other renewables), as a middle-class fetish for wanting to be green. The last thing they would have expected was solar emerging as a political issue, not just on the state and national scale, but in their own electorates.

They were mistaken.

A series of surveys and postcode analysis has shown that Australia has one of the highest deployments of small-scale systems on household roofs in the world — beaten only by Japan — and most of this has been put on the rooftops of households in the nation’s mortgage belts, in the city and in regional areas.

Finally, someone has done the obvious and made the effort to link these installations with electoral divisions. The results will take many politicians by surprise. Now they must now sit up and take notice.

The Australian Solar Council, the Solar Energy Industries Association and the community-based lobby group 100% Renewables teamed up to commission leading industry analyst Sunwiz to plot a solar electorate map, which shows where householders are investing in solar panels and hot water systems to cut their power bills.

The new map is designed to help federal MPs see just how many solar voters there are in their local area and demonstrate how important the Renewable Energy Target (RET) is for their electorate, and how rooftop solar is treated not just by the RET, but by state-based tariffs and by their local utilities and network providers, many of whom are fearful of what solar PV will do to their business.

The leading electorate with the most rooftop solar systems is Wright in south-east Queensland, held by the Liberal National Party’s Scott Buchholz. In second place — for both PV and hot water systems — is Lalor, the seat held by Prime Minister Julia Gillard (25,829 systems).

Contrary to popular belief, rooftop solar is not the province of the inner city latte set — possibly because in some inner suburbs the wealthy don’t notice electricity bills, or because their rooftops are not suitable. Greens MP Adam Bandt’s inner-city seat of Melbourne (2849) has one of the lowest deployments, as do the seats of Peter Garrett (2527) and Malcolm Turnbull (1265).

The electorates of Energy Minister Martin Ferguson rates fairly low (4377). His opposite number, the Coalition’s Ian Macfarlane, rates higher (8936), and the electorates of Climate Change Minister Greg Combet (11,455) and that of his rival Greg Hunt (12,971), are also high.

What is interesting is that many marginal seats, and many held by the Coalition, also have high numbers of rooftop solar installations. The solar lobby groups say that this means that if people vote on the basis of which party has helped them install solar and manage their power bills, or will help them best in the future to meet the upfront cost of solar, solar voters will be able to change the outcome in a number of key marginal seats.

Nearly four million Australians, and one million households, have solar on their roofs, and at least double that are expected to follow in the next two years — more in the years to follow. As we pointed out earlier this year, the introduction of financing initiatives such as solar leasing have the potential to make solar available to an even greater demographic. We suggested then that Zero Cost solar could be Gillard’s secret election weapon. In reality, it is available to either party, although the Coalition would have to update its one million solar homes policy to a one million more solar homes policy.

Support for solar will be a hot issue in the 2013 election,” says Lindsay Soutar, 100% Renewables National Campaign Co-ordinator. “Solar offers householders the ultimate financial control over their power bills so voters will be looking to see which party will help them manage their energy bills now and in the future.”

But even if householders are pushing for a fairer deal on solar, and are pushing back against the increasing cost of the grid-supplied electrons, it seems politicians and their advisors are still slow to notice.

RenewEconomy on Thursday pointed out the position of Joel Fitzgibbon, who last week suggested that the RET should be dumped. He admitted he was speaking on behalf of the workers at the two coal-fired power stations in his electorate, but did not register that parts of his electorate have large amounts of solar installations.

Even today, News Limited quoted the ACCC chief Rod Sims warning against householders making rash decisions about rooftop solar. “I don’t blame an individual for taking advantage of very high subsidies,” he told The Sunday Mail. “But I would say don’t assume electricity prices are going to be sky-high. Don’t fall for an argument they are going up 500% in the next five years.”

Er, that’s not the point. As the Australian Energy Market Operator suggested in June, the uptake of rooftop solar would likely be widespread because of the falling costs of rooftop solar panels, and as a hedge against rising electricity prices. These don’t need to rise by 500%.

*This article was originally published at RenewEconomy

18
  • 1
    zut alors
    Posted Monday, 5 November 2012 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    … it seems politicians and their advisors are still slow to notice.’

    Situation normal. Politicians’ attention is on popularity polls these days, they have less time for reality.

    Some interesting facts and statistics in this piece, thanks.

  • 2
    Posted Monday, 5 November 2012 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    I second Zut’s thanx.

  • 3
    drmick
    Posted Monday, 5 November 2012 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Is it possible the message about alternative power sources, ostensibly the reason for the great big new tax, has got through; in spite of absolutely no media support and a concerted all out unrelenting attack by established power industries and their political party and their newspaper, TV and radio campaign? Well IBF.

  • 4
    John Bennetts
    Posted Monday, 5 November 2012 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    Solar homes account for 2 to 22% of any given federal electorate.

    Is this article really recommending that federal members place the interests of the other 77-98% of their electorate behind those of the 2-23% who have been lucky enough to be able to get on board the solar bus?

    That very large majority also get the privilege of paying retail tariffs which include a couple of hundred dollars per account, per year due to imbalanced costs and charges which support the PV-enabled.

    The PV-penalised include the poor, renters, unit dwellers and those who, for work reasons, must relocate frequently, or at least before a solar system is likely to pay for itself.

    My suggestion to any Federal Member interested in energy equity as a topic to support re-election is that they place the interests of the majority in front of those of the minority.

  • 5
    Hamis Hill
    Posted Monday, 5 November 2012 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    A first glimmer of hope that housing will begin to pay for itself and at some stage become a good investment istead of burdening the nation with a yearly $60BILLION mortgage interest bill.
    A hard number that might explode Heckle Abbott and Jeckle Hockey were they ever to ingest it.
    How about the “water proof” home ie one that collects and recycles its own water, disposes of waste with solar incinerators and relieves the householder of the “services” of parasites who expect payment irrespective of the inability of the standard suburban home to produce any income for their inhabitants.
    Just “Speculating” about what sustainable, external grasping parasite free home security might look like, especially for elderly retirees on limited, fixed incomes.
    Veggie gardens anyone.( Automated hydroponic?)
    Just as silly as a Ha Ha, “power station on the roof” really.

  • 6
    John64
    Posted Monday, 5 November 2012 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    Australia has one of the highest deployments of small-scale systems on household roofs in the world and most of this [is] in the nation’s mortgage belts, in the city and in regional areas.”

    Why not just say “everywhere”?

    The new map is designed to help federal MPs see just how many solar voters there are in their local area and demonstrate how important the Renewable Energy Target (RET) is for their electorate, and how rooftop solar is treated not just by the RET, but by state-based tariffs and by their local utilities and network providers, many of whom are fearful of what solar PV will do to their business.”

    So basically - much like the baby bonus - solar tariffs are middle-class welfare for the 21st Century.

  • 7
    Captain Planet
    Posted Monday, 5 November 2012 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    Contrary to popular belief, rooftop solar is not the province of the inner city latte set — possibly because in some inner suburbs the wealthy don’t notice electricity bill

    I don’t know if Giles ever trained as a journalist, but there are a number of unsupported assumptions in his analysis - starting with these presumptions that
    a) The inner city is the province of some kind of “latte set”
    b) These people are all “wealthy”
    c) This poorly defined “wealthy” “latte set” makes decisions about their energy needs based solely on the impact of electricity bills on their financial position.

    solar lobby groups say that this means that if people vote on the basis of which party has helped them install solar and manage their power bills, or will help them best in the future to meet the upfront cost of solar, solar voters will be able to change the outcome in a number of key marginal seats

    This discounts the possibility that a large percentage of people in these suburbs could hold the view that they are very pleased that they have managed to get their solar panels installed at a cheap price, have locked in a favourable feed in tariff, and would now like to see all subsidies and feed in tariff support withdrawn. F — - you jack, I’m allright. From a purely selfish perspective, as our free - market capitalist economy promotes, this is the logical stance to take.

    Not everyone who has a rooftop solar system is going to vote for those who propose to support others to also get a rooftop solar system. It is quite possible that those who already have such a system will actually vote against the party who will provide the most support for new solar PV installations.

  • 8
    Captain Planet
    Posted Monday, 5 November 2012 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    @ John Bennets,

    Solar homes account for 2 to 22% of any given federal electorate.

    Is this article really recommending that federal members place the interests of the other 77-98% of their electorate behind those of the 2-23% who have been lucky enough to be able to get on board the solar bus?

    No. It’s suggesting that federal MP’s ought to consider the impact of the high levels of Solar PV penetration are likely to have on the attitudes of the electorate to renewable energy policy.

    Unfortunately, both the author, and you, have misinterpreted the facts rather badly.

    Renewable Energy Credits and Feed - in Tariff guarantees have been rolled out in such a manner, and have been wound back systematically so consistently, that the main demographic which is likely to vote in support of continuation or extension of these policies, is the people who don’t yet have solar PV on their roof, but would like to install it.

    Those who already have a system have no incentive outside of environmental altruism, to continue to support or extend the subsidy schemes as they have been implemented thus far.

  • 9
    Captain Planet
    Posted Monday, 5 November 2012 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    @ John64

    “Australia has one of the highest deployments of small-scale systems on household roofs in the world and most of this [is] in the nation’s mortgage belts, in the city and in regional areas.”

    Why not just say “everywhere”?

    I believe you will find the author intended to say that the most of the deployment is in the nation’s mortgage belts, whether in the city, or in regional areas.

    So basically - much like the baby bonus - solar tariffs are middle-class welfare for the 21st Century.

    Solar tariffs and subsidies are designed to help revolutionise the provision of energy to Australian households, thus contributing to the extremely important worldwide efforts currently underway to rein in growth in, and then reduce, dangerous levels of CO2 levels.
    Thus, unlike the baby bonus which was blatant middle class welfare, Solar subsidies and tariffs actually have the aim of providing a measure of energy independance for Australian households and Australia as a whole, while contributing to solving possibly the most important and most difficult challenge humanity has ever faced.

  • 10
    Harry1951
    Posted Monday, 5 November 2012 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    John Bennetts: maybe you did not read the article properly as it is clear that zero-financed installations go at least some way of addressing your objections regarding subsidies.

    John64: the install of solar panels can now be paid for over time. The solar tariffs you complain of as middle-class welfare (feed-in) are not attractive anymore so most installs are done to reduce their power bills.

  • 11
    Tim nash
    Posted Monday, 5 November 2012 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    Solar panels are inherently good.

    It is very difficult to argue that they are bad.

    Solar panels are only bad for electricity retailers.

    Eventually solar technology will improve and we will see large increases in the amount of electricity supplied.

    This will cause a shock a little like the one Gerry Harvey found when he was loosing customers to the internet.

    A clever retailer would now start getting INTO the solar market, seeing there is DEMAND for it.

  • 12
    John Attwood
    Posted Monday, 5 November 2012 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    @john64 - the main problem is that the absolute numbers do not show the percentages, and there’s no real way to do these comparisons.

    I have a small installation, FIT of 60c/kWh in NSW. New installations get 22c/kWh. Baby bonus was well and truly different - it was available to all who had kids in a certain time period. My kids are well too old to qualify.

    Solar subsidies are intended to increase the uptake of solar installations - reducing the nation’s reliance on the dirty coal-fired generation units the governments have relied on for so long.

    I am disappointed that the Moree solar farm proposal has fallen through, possibly due to political interference by coalition MPs trying to drive a political statement in support of the climate deniers.

  • 13
    Sean Doyle
    Posted Tuesday, 6 November 2012 at 4:03 am | Permalink

    I dare suggest that one of the major reasons why the “inner city latte set” have low take ups of hole solar is due to such areas having a higher proportion of renters and otherwise young and transient people (e.g. Melbourne, the electorate of Green MP Adam Bandt, would have a high proportion of students from RMIT and Melbourne University within its boundaries), which makes solar panels unattractive since there is often a high upfront cost and they can’t be easily transferred to a new property, a major problem given that landlords in Australia can, by and large, kick you out whenever they feel like it. Obviously no incentive for the landlord to install a system either.

    Perhaps one way would be to allow landlords to install solar systems and allow them to keep the profits of the power sent back to the grid. To avoid abuse by renters, they could get perhaps a 50% discount on their bill so as they get some advantage from solar but still have an incentive to keep power use down. Obviously if the renter uses more power than the panel produces, they can then pay the bill in full.

  • 14
    Sanjay
    Posted Tuesday, 6 November 2012 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    Australia has very few natural advantages apart from having lots of land. The cost of energy is one advantage which the smart countries know goes into all goods produced. For years we have been selling electric power to bulk users for 3cents/kwh, now that this has been dumped on by the greens aluminium refining is no longer viable. How many more industries can Australia close down, or are we just going to sell stuff we dig up.

  • 15
    John64
    Posted Tuesday, 6 November 2012 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    @Harry1951 “the install of solar panels can now be paid for over time”

    Only if you include rebates and tariffs. Most solar installs don’t have battery back-ups (as it costs considerably extra and takes up significant room). Solar panels generate most of their power from 1 pm - 4 pm in the afternoon, when most people are out at work. Without batteries to store that power for use when you get home, it means that power has to be fed into the grid where it’s mostly not needed - and gets paid exorbitant prices for (even 22c a kwh is ridiculous - coal power plants genrate power for 3c and produce Megawatts, why would they pay 22c for your single kilowatt?).

    So unless you have a true stand-alone system, solar power is mostly a charade. Take off the rebate (your tax dollars being fed back to you) and remove the tariffs and you’d find that most houses still need to be connected to the grid /and pay for their power/ because the power they do generate, isn’t used by their house because they’re not home at the time!

    @John Attwood: And the Baby Bonus was designed to increase Australia’s declining birth rate, which will cause considerable problems as more and more Australians retire, without a greater “working class” to replace them and pay for their pensions. As for your kids being too old, that was the point, you were supposed to get busy and make new ones. ;)

  • 16
    Hamis Hill
    Posted Tuesday, 6 November 2012 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    So how about getting busy and developing a domestic lead-acid battery service industry.
    Even with the dark ages mentality existing at present surely we might be able to replicate the technology of when? the early ninetenth century?With a bit of recycling of the dead batteries. So what do you do- burn a bit of sulphur dissolve the gas in water, burn a bit of lead, stick it all together, should take a few billion dollars worth of capital investment.
    Domestic solar thermal to solve the storage problem?
    A bit of refrigerant gas heat exchange for rotating some generators, oh yes, already used in your car and refrigerator, totally impractical then just like acquiring some education in the history of science and technology and how it “EVOLVED” from simple beginings.
    Much, much too hard, God help the poor pathetic bastards who think everything must have a Billion dollar start-up budget before it appears in your marketplace, just like the personal computer you are using?
    Oh the irony!
    Better just let yourselves get stiched up by the advice of some “Expert” or other who will deliver you lock, stock amd barrel to some Billion dollar debt peddlers so that they,the experts, can play with “Big” toys.
    So the ordinary consumer can support this mutually regarding, “virtuous circle” of suckholes dictating the entrenched slavery of debt dependency?
    Yeah, really sustainable.
    Breed up a whole parcel of slaves to keep the kettle boiling, ad infinitum?

  • 17
    John Bennetts
    Posted Tuesday, 6 November 2012 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

    Hamis Hill appears to underestimate the size of the problems which lead acid batteries at the scale he envisages present.

    Firstly, there isn’t enough lead on the planet to do the job.

    Second, the proposed method of manufacture by burning sulfur presumes that this is environmentally anf commercially adequate. It isn’t, otherwise people with real knowledge of these matters would have cleaned up many years ago, by taking electricity consumers off grid and saving them money.

    Third, the average life of a lead acid battery in continuous service such as this is somewhere between 5 and 10 years, depending on luck, maintenance and service environment.

    Fourth, domestic customers account for about 1/3rd of electricity usage. The other 2/3rds are commercial and industrial, for which this type of solution is no solution at all.

    Overall, the proposal that lead acid batteries are in any way a complete or adequate response to the energy storage conundrum is ill-advised.

  • 18
    Hamis Hill
    Posted Thursday, 8 November 2012 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    Dear Mr Bennetts, so now you are a Chemist?
    Is there no limit to your talents?
    Perhaps you can inform readers of the CSIRO battery which incorporates a nanotube supercapacitor and the good old, reliable, lead-acid battery?
    Or Mr Bennetts’ bete noire, the flywheel energy storage device or “mechanical” battery for which there are few, material-shortage impediments?
    It only has to store enough to overcome the potential blackout period of a couple of hours for which the grid’s gold plated, over-capacity was developed.
    Any longer and the internal friction will set the mechanical batteries into meltdown mode according to Mr Bennetts’ prior posts on this subject.
    For example, a ten KiloWatt hour flywheel will produce an entire one KiloWatt hour of mechanical friction which would be something like putting a radiant heater inside a metal box and turning it on for an hour.
    So far press reports of exploding Fywheel energy storage devices are vanishingly rare.
    Are you sure, Mr Bennetts, that that is what you meant to convey as the essence of your superior wisdom?
    Overall, some reliance upon Mr Bennetts’ predictable sermoans on the debate might just be a little ill-advised given his propensity for hyberbole and an over-confected pretence of comprehension of scientific first principles.
    Some refresher courses in order?
    It has been a long time now hasn’t it, MR Bennetts.
    Yes or no?
    But that gold plating of the grid; now there might be some expertise there?
    Any comments?

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