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Households gear up for next phase of the solar revolution

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Solar panels are landing on rooftops just as the Hills Hoist invaded backyards. If you’re not solar-powered, you’re not with it.

In a few days’ time the United Nations climate change conference will start in Paris, taking up where the previous talks in Copenhagen failed.

Also See : Solar powered bike path generating more energy than expected

In the six years since Copenhagen, the cost of solar panels has plummeted and battery technology has improved dramatically. If households can generate electricity by day and then store it to use in the evening, it would revolutionise electricity distribution.

There are forecasts of a coming boom in solar batteries to rival the boom in panel installation of the first Kevin Rudd era. US-based Greentech Media claims Australia will be a leader in installing batteries, forecasting solar storage capacity to rise from 6.6 megawatts to 75 megawatts in 2016, hitting 800 megawatts by 2020.

Related : New solar battery outperforms conventional lithium-iodine batteries

As the costs of panels and batteries keep falling, who would pay an energy company 45¢ a kilowatt hour when you can generate the power yourself, with some assistance from the sun, for 8¢ to 12¢ a kilowatt hour?

Especially when it’s never been easier, or cheaper, to finance a solar installation. The other thing that’s changed since Copenhagen, and Australia’s previous solar boom, is the rise of leasing or pay-as-you-go options.

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Still, solar panels aren’t always as kind to your pocket as they are to the environment. If you buy a system that’s too big they can even lift your bill when, for the first time, electricity prices are falling.

And if you’re planning on putting your feet up by selling your solar power to the energy company, I wouldn’t.

As a rule solar pays off after five years in Sydney and seven in Melbourne due to the difference in the amount of sun in each city. Let’s not go there. It’s also because Melbourne has cheaper conventional power so the benefit is also slightly less.

These payback periods stack up well against other investments that don’t have the feel-good green benefits. For most shares and investment properties the payback period is more like 10 years or longer.

The panels should be good for at least 25 years, though parts of the system might need replacing after a decade.

Looked at another way – which is to say dispassionately by me – in Sydney it’s a 15 per cent annual return after tax on your investment.

Solar costs falling

Just as people touting the benefits of solar can sometimes be selective, there are also some urban myths about the cost.

Many people believe that it’s become more expensive because government subsidies are falling. In fact the cost of installing a system has fallen faster than the government subsidies.

A 1.5 kilowatt system, which should satisfy about one-third of the average household’s electricity consumption, costs between $3000 to $6000. A souped-up five kilowatt affair, probably enough to light up a whole suburb, will cost $7000 to $11,500.

Incidentally the reason for the big price range for each size is that a lot depends on how many panels you need, what your roof is made of, and sundry things such as whether you need a new meter and wiring or trees have to be removed.

 

Action plan for solar

  • Check your last four energy bills to see how much power you use and when. This will tell you the size of the system you need.
  • Only generate power you need – feed-in tariffs aren’t worth it.
  • Ask your energy company what your new night tariff will be.
  • Use a Clean Energy Council approved installer (see solaraccreditation.com.au).
  • Get three quotes. Sites such as Clean Energy Council and Solar Choice can arrange this.

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