Carina McNaughton and son Daniel with their solar panels in Hoppers Crossing. Photo: Pat Scala
Three years ago, when state governments began slashing the rates paid for selling power back to the electricity grid, many predicted that installations of solar systems would slow down drastically, or even grind to a halt. Some alarmists even warned people would be tearing the panels off their roofs.
But it seems reports of the death of the solar industry have been greatly exaggerated and solar power - once mostly the darling of tree huggers and true believers - has become increasingly popular with middle Australia.
People have twigged that electricity bills are going to keep going up for some time, and they’ve also worked out that the sun is going to come up tomorrow. They are walking into solar shops with their power bills in their hands saying “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more”. - Greg Barber, Victorian Greens leader
And despite recent jibes that solar is the feel-good plaything of wealthier homes, new data shows much of the latest growth in solar systems has been among retirees and those in Melbourne's newer suburbs.
Victorian Greens Leader Greg Barber. Photo: Leanne Pickett
Indeed, the latest figures from the Clean Energy Regulator shows Hoppers Crossing in the city's west has more solar panels than any other Melbourne suburb.
Hoppers Crossing resident Carina McNaughton, a nurse and mother of two small children, laughs at the stereotype of only wealthy greenies being interested in solar power.
''We don't have a huge mortgage but I wouldn't call us wealthy. I work two days a week and I'm home with the kids.''
McNaughton says the family of four installed solar panels in January, after taking out a small loan to cover the cost. Although she and her husband had been thinking about it for a while, it was after a door-to-door salesman gave her a quote for panels that she began researching the idea before getting several quotes.
The main motivation for going solar was that it would benefit the environment, followed closely by wanting to control the family's energy costs.
''When we first started thinking about solar we went through the house to see what we could do to cut down our electricity consumption. We bought curtains with pelmets on ebay, got into the habit of turning things off; it all made a big difference.''
McNaughton says she and her husband are not worried about cuts to the feed-in tariffs or other subsidies, and plan to use their system almost entirely for their own electricity use. Being at home a lot during the day, she says she can make good use of the electricity generated during the daylight hours.
''If they cut the feed-in tariff to nothing we'd still get panels and I think most people would still get them. You drive around this area and a lot of houses have gone solar.'' Over the past summer, solar systems generated around 10 per cent of Australia's day-time electricity, with 1.15 million homes and businesses having solar-electricity systems. Victoria has just over 17 per cent of the country's solar systems.
According to a new report from Roy Morgan Research, the number of Australians with solar panels has more than doubled in the past three years, from 7.5 per cent in March 2011, to 16 per cent - more than three million people - by the end of 2013.
While it's true that the rate of installation of solar systems has slowed since a spike in 2012, figures from the federal government's Clean Energy Regulator show recent numbers plateauing, rather than falling off the edge of a cliff.
In 2013 there were more than 193,000 solar systems installed; take the 2011/12 spike out of the equation and that's close to the 2010 figure of 198,000.
Between 2006 and 2010, the number of solar systems installed soared, more than tripling each year. It seems the 2011/12 spike was driven largely by huge growth in Queensland, where the public was given two weeks' notice that the feed-in tariff would then be cut from a very generous 44 cents to just eight cents.
Not surprisingly, the industry was flooded with demand from people wanting to order panels while the higher rate still applied.
Feed-in tariffs have been cut drastically over the past four years, at different times in different states, and in some cases with little notice to the public.
The average in all states is now 6-8 cents per kilowatt-hour.
In Victoria, the feed-in tariff was cut from 60 to 25 cents in 2011, and is now eight cents for all new customers. This means that it's now very tough to make your solar electricity system pay for itself by selling back to the grid the power your household doesn't use.
So if solar systems are no longer paying for themselves out of the proceeds of selling unused power, why are people still lining up to put panels on their roofs and why are some people working hard to discourage that?
Darren Gladman, policy manager with the Clean Energy Council, says the two main factors driving the appetite for solar are return on investment and rising electricity prices.
Over the past four years, the cost of solar panels has plummeted, driven largely by the fact that Chinese companies have taken over the manufacturing. Four years ago, a solar system could cost as much as a small car: now it costs about the same as a big TV.
Regardless of whether you sell electricity back to the grid or not, today's average-sized solar systems are cheap enough to pay for themselves in around six years. In fact, many solar companies are advising people to buy a system that has about the right capacity for their household's energy needs and forget about having extra to sell back to the grid .
Gladman says rising electricity costs are the other big incentive for people to switch to solar. Residential electricity prices nationally went up on average 14 per cent from 2012 to 2013, although this rate of increase is expected to slow significantly.
Many of those now signing up for solar panels are retirees and others on a tight budget who are drawn to the idea of controlling their energy costs.
Victorian Greens leader Greg Barber is blunt: ''People have twigged that electricity bills are going to keep going up for some time, and they've also worked out that the sun is going to come up tomorrow. They are walking into solar shops with their power bills in their hands saying 'I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more'.''
Barber is among those arguing that the continuing appetite for solar is starting to attract criticism and even industry attempts to make it more difficult for people to install solar panels.
He says he was recently asked in State Parliament why the people of Wyndham Vale are subsidising solar power for the people of Toorak.
''I ran straight back to my office to check and it's rubbish.''
Similarly, on the ABC's Q&A program recently, James Allan, professor of law at the University of Queensland, called home solar systems ''middle-class welfare''. ''Nice rich people who can afford the massively subsidised solar panels on their house are taking money away from [electricity] companies. They're taking the money away from working-class people so that middle-class people can feel good about themselves,'' he said.
The Clean Energy Council, which is largely funded by wind and solar companies, says the line that solar panels are a middle-class, latte-sipping indulgence is being peddled strongly, but does not stand up to scrutiny.
Figures from the Clean Energy Regulator show the top four suburbs in Victoria for solar capacity installed are Hoppers Crossing, Werribee, Cranbourne and Caroline Springs. Toorak doesn't even make it into the top 20.
Gladman says there is increasing evidence of an organised lobby against solar in recent times.
''Part of that push has been to try to demonise solar as a toy of rich greenies, but that's not borne out by the facts.''
While such sticks and stones won't break their panels, of greater concern to the solar industry is the push by power companies to consider introducing a fixed fee for anyone putting a solar panel on their roof.
At present, electricity bills are calculated on a fixed fee for the use of the poles and wire infrastructure, and a charge based on the amount of power used, but there is strong suggestion that energy companies will soon target the fixed-price component, as solar power continues to rise and demand for power from the grid reduces.
Writing at the end of last year, Dr Rob Stokes, NSW parliamentary secretary for renewable energy and energy innovation, argued against the push by energy companies for customers with solar panels to pay more to access the electricity grid than customers without solar, calling it unfair and discriminatory.
"Solar panels have moved from being a fringe technology to a disruptive technology, challenging the way energy businesses operate. As with every revolution, the solar revolution is facing a reactionary response by the established order,'' he said.
And underlining the concerns that power companies have over how much those with solar should be paying, the Australian Energy Market Commission, the body that advises the government on energy matters, said in a recent report that the appropriate allocation of network costs to customers with solar was ''the most frequently raised topic in stakeholder workshops and submissions''.
The Energy Retailers Association argues that a deregulated market is the best solution to the issue of subsidies for solar, with individual energy retailers able to decide how much they want to pay for energy fed back into the grid by solar customers.
Cameron O'Reilly, chief executive officer of the Energy Retailers Association of Australia, says while feed-in tariffs had helped to stimulate the demand for solar, there is no doubt that they have been subsidised by those customers who did not have it.
O'Reilly says that the market for solar has matured to a point where the cost of solar systems has fallen and the case for any continued subsidy is diminishing.
Adding to the pressure on power companies, the demand for electricity in Australia has been falling over recent years, against industry forecasts. In all states except Western Australia and the Northern Territory, electricity consumption in 2013 fell for the fifth consecutive calendar year. Electricity consumption in 2013 was 2.8 per cent lower than in 2012. The debate over solar power is also taking place against the backdrop of a review of the Renewable Energy Target, recently announced by the federal government.
While the government points out that the review and its timing is required by legislation, the Greens are among those who believe that it will be used as an excuse to heavily cut the target.
The Renewable Energy Target is the mandated 20 per cent target for energy. The existing target requires large-scale electricity generators to source 41,000 gigawatt-hours of power from renewable sources by 2020, (a gigawatt equals one thousand megawatt hours) however there is increasing speculation that the RET will be cut back.
The federal government has appointed senior business figure and climate change sceptic Dick Warburton to head the review of the RET, which will advise on, among other things, whether the size of the target ''is still appropriate''.
The renewable energy industry has argued that billions in investment will be significantly affected if the target is cut. The Sustainable Energy Association of Australia estimates that the RET will be responsible for $18 billion worth of investment in renewable energy projects by 2020.
There is also evidence that some potential home solar customers are being actively discouraged from going ahead with a solar system, or at least being pushed to install something smaller.
The Alternative Technology Association says while the issue of voltage control can cause problems for some power companies in some areas that accept solar systems feeding in power, this should not be a large scale problem.
Damien Moyes, energy policy manager with the ATA, says this problem has largely been resolved. ''But anecdotally we are hearing some people are being told to install a slightly smaller system. There is a suspicion sometimes that [the power companies] can't be bothered.''
While the Clean Energy Council hesitates to criticise individual power companies, Gladman says the council is working with distribution companies on solutions to the difficulty in connecting more solar to the grid in areas where there is already a high penetration of solar. He says the technology to overcome that does exist.
''We are concerned that some smaller distribution businesses might be moving too quickly to just saying no.''
For the Greens, although claims of middle-class indulgence and delays with installations of home solar are frustrating, there are also sure signs that solar is here to stay. Says Barber: ''It's all a rear-guard action to hold off renewables. Coal is fighting back but it won't work, people are voting with their power bills.''
Clare Kermond is a senior writer.