Why Australian solar incentives need to be extended

Published: 30 May 2018

Statistics show the government-based incentive was the primary driver for 1.6 million to instal solar – as well as access to cheap power. That’s why the Australian solar incentive needs to be extended.

The reason the Australian solar incentive for renewables should be sustained and increased.

There’s no doubt that a growing number of Australians are embracing the need to integrate eco-friendly practices into daily living. Generally speaking, we’d like to think we’re responding adequately to the global call to temper our unsustainable socio-economic traditions.

For young, eco-driven businesses, busy with the attention and hype of a new and growing market niche, it’s easy to draw the conclusion that Australia has answered the call to embrace sustainable living.

Of course, the outward signs appear positive. And of course, it would seem appropriate to celebrate with a hearty slap on the back and congratulatory toast.

With well over one and a half million Aussie homes now drawing some level of power from roof-top solar, a truly brilliant method for households to reduce their carbon footprint, the numbers show we’ve understood the call for sustainability, and we’re acting.

We want to run with this. We want to be positive.

A closer look at some basic stats and numbers, some comparisons and relativities, indicates a very different story. Are we really doing all we can? Do we even care about the call for sustainable living and serious carbon emission reductions?

A brief analysis of our motivations for solar uptake is suggesting we are missing the point.

Being positive and enthusiastic about embracing change is critical. However, reflection on the reality is equally important. In truth, the numbers indicate a pretty harsh reality about the importance we place on our roles in reducing carbon emissions.

We’re not about to be judgemental or in any way scolding. It’s completely about generating understanding.

This article is written to evoke reflection on the Australian people’s response to the global call to reduce carbon emissions.

Preamble 

As children we are nurtured into the world of responsibility, guided and directed under various forms of reward and sanction.

Until such a time that we understand why writing on the living room wall and pulling the dog’s tail is bad, our parents, family and numerous social institutions employ a host of methods to reward desired behaviour while discouraging undesirable behaviour.

At the ripe old age of 5, young Timmy is hugged and praised when he cleans his teeth the moment it is requested. If he refuses or forgets, he is threatened with the confiscation of his favourite morning tea treat and scolded.

This system ensured Timmy cleaned his teeth. He didn’t really comprehend why he had to do it, he didn’t enjoy it at all, but he loved the hugs and praise, and loved his morning tea treat so much he was compliant for fear of missing out.

This was used to get Timmy to a point in life where his teeth cleaning was motivated by his own understanding of the satisfaction of good oral hygiene.

It’s likely this story is very familiar to you. You were subject to these methods, and you have used it on your own children. Simple reward and sanction until understanding is achieved.

Many of you will now be thinking that linking Timmy’s scenario to solar power is going to take some serious contortion work. Interestingly, no.

Timmy’s story serves to illustrate an interesting issue relative to the uptake of domestic solar power in Australia and our attitudes toward renewables generally.

Why has the uptake of domestic solar spiked in the last 5 years? Have we turned a corner in environmental awareness? Have we embraced the true purpose of solar? Or, like our 5-year-old Timmy, is the promise of reward (in the form of financial benefit) driving our photovoltaic fit out? Just how much can be attributed to the Australian solar incentive?

Australian solar: Why Australians aren’t ready

You’ve probably seen articles online with very clickable, SEO-friendly headlines like ‘65 reasons to go solar now’ or similar. Perhaps the heading was a little tongue-in-cheek with a smattering of hyperbole for effect. Finding 65 reasons might have required some serious padding and invention.

Nonetheless, it’s easy to present a good number of valid reasons for installing solar at your house now. Current solar market conditions ensure that installing an array now is a no-brainer for reaping financial benefits and rewards.

The government incentives are still available. The Australian solar incentive is high, and some states are enjoying reasonable feed-in tariffs. Happy days. Cheap power, even free power, with benefits.

While you’re mulling over the next 63 odd reasons to go solar now, here’s a thought.

The world’s leading independent scientists, geographers and climate experts are now yelling at us, if ever so politely, that we should be convinced to install renewables for one reason only.

The one critical reason for the uptake of solar and renewables is that our continuation of fossil fuel reliance will compromise the planet’s resources.

Our current behaviours and practices will radically damage or destroy the resources that are necessary for sustaining human society and life as we know it.

That’s a pretty big warning, and we’ve heard it many times in the last decade. It would seem the consequence for ignoring this warning is potentially apocalyptic.

So, in the face of such a dire prognosis if we don’t act, why have we installed only a million odd arrays at home? Why aren’t there 20 million shiny solar panels dotting the rooflines of Australia? Even if it only helps a little bit?

Wouldn’t you have thought that with the heads up to such brutal consequences, that Aussies and Aussie spirit would have pulled us together to do our bit to ward off this imminent catastrophe?

This article is about highlighting the apparent disconnect between average Australians and the primary motivator behind the need for the uptake of renewables.

We will demonstrate that if what science has warned us about the consequences of climate change is true, then not only should external incentives for solar and renewables be continued indefinitely, but Australian solar incentives and programs should be significantly expanded.

This is because, it would seem, that our collective wisdom is yet to mature to that point where we will invest in solar and renewables simply because we understand that it is the right thing to do for our future.

Currently, we’re behaving like Timmy at 5 years old. We want tangible, instant rewards for our efforts. We want our morning tea treat. We want to be paid to save the planet.

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What we can learn from recent Australian solar history

Many of us will remember catchy slogans from decades past: “Free From The Sun.” Your hot water tank sat on the roof, heated by power generated by the sun.

It was sold as a cheap way of getting hot water. The units certainly weren’t marketed to us as a green alternative. It was about saving money on hot water. Most people probably aren’t  aware that this technology came on line back in the early 1950s.

For the most part, apart from a few avant-garde examples of solar-powered homes, that was it for solar back in the 70s and 80s. Anything else was fodder for science nerds.

As Gen X were settling into adulthood, the science of human induced climate change and its consequences started to hit the headlines with force.

Despite plenty of dissent and argument, human induced climate change become the accepted science, prompting governments to implement policy to mitigate against the looming disastrous outcome. Kyoto becomes a household name and in 2015 the Paris Accord came into being.

Australia, along with other nations, committed to carbon reductions. As part of a broader carbon reduction plan, the Australian government introduced Australian solar incentives in the form of subsidies and financial incentives to encourage the domestic uptake of solar systems. That was 18 years ago in 2000.

With incentives in place, Australians began jumping on the solar bandwagon in pretty significant numbers—enough to foster the growth of a viable solar industry.

The interesting thing is this. Although solar technology was readily available, and although we were made very aware of the impact of fossil fuels and the doomsday potential, it took financial incentive and the promise of a government-sponsored, sunlight-driven pay day to encourage our solar uptake.

In 2016, Australians spent 4 billion dollars on renewables (the bulk of this was rooftop solar). 

To put this in perspective, Australians spend annually (2016) 80 billion on recreation, 20 billion on fashion and a whopping 14 billion on alcohol.

The conclusion we can derive from these figures is that Australians will usher in the new era of climate carnage looking fantastic and having the time of their lives while drunk as soldiers.

In all seriousness, these basic figures clearly indicate that even in the face of such a dire global forecast, there is a lack of enthusiasm to accept the need for change, and a distinct lack of urgency to implement the remedy.

Australians are known for doing their bit. There are countless examples of Australians banding together to rise up in the face of adversity.

Together and as individuals we have endured atrocity, death and untold hardship to battle foreign invaders, drought, storms and floods and the like. It’s our duty. We do it willingly with the only incentive being that it is the right thing to do.

Whatever we could do, even the smallest of contributions, we did it and we do it. 

Herein lies the obvious disconnect. The evidence indicates that the main reason we are installing solar on our homes has little to do with the critical reason the government is paying us to install it in the first place. It seems we’ve missed the point.

Yes. It’s saving money on power. You’ll be looking hard to find a solar slogan ‘save the planet’ as the primary incentive for investing.

Australian solar: What do we believe and who do we believe?

When the doctor advises us to take medication to avoid getting very ill, generally speaking, we take the advice and take the medication with few questions asked. We will radically change our habits and sacrifice money and lifestyle to ensure a positive health prognosis.

When the TV weather presenter tells us there is a major storm event coming, we batten down the hatches and make preparations for the stormy onslaught. We do the same when warned of fire and flood.

But when our most esteemed and educated scientists tell us we are causing the demise of our own existence at breakneck pace, all of a sudden, we have opinions about this. We question, we doubt, and we are slow to act to implement their suggested remedies.

The way we are spending our money, as illustrated earlier, might suggest that we don’t really believe a total collapse of life as we know it is imminent. With nearly 20 years of Australian solar incentives, where solar systems essentially pay for themselves, only 1.6 million homes have them.

Interestingly, however, surveys undertaken by the Lowey institute in 2017 suggest nearly all Australians (81 percent of adults) prefer we change to renewable power generation. 

A very significant 51 percent believe climate change is a critical threat to Australia’s vital interest over the next 10 years. 

Yet, with over 18 years of affordable solar, only 16.5 percent of Australian dwellings generate power from PVs.

Again, the figures highlight a disconnect. Here we see that our actions don’t reflect that which we say we believe. 

Reasons for our apparent inaction towards Australian solar

It could easily be construed that our response to the problem at hand is, at the very least, disproportionate.

Solar power represents a very easy and affordable way for Australians to genuinely contribute to essential carbon emission reductions. Yet, over 18 years, our response relative to the climate-based primary motivator would appear sluggish.

We need to ask why.

The following list is presented as food for thought. Here are some suggestions as to why it appears we are not doing all we can to reduce carbon emissions.

 Why isn’t solar energy widely used?

1. We don’t care

Granted. There is likely a percentage of citizens who genuinely don’t care. But take a look at the Lowey survey linked above. The numbers there would suggest the majority really do care about climate change. The question is: are there enough of those who do care, and who care enough?

2. Apathy

Deep down we believe the problem of climate change appears to be insurmountable. We’ll go on living as we do and come what may. Me putting on a solar panel will do nothing to combat the CO2 spewing out of China.

3. Intangible consequence

The majority of us have not had our daily lives impacted in any discernible way by climate change. We have no tangible experience of the consequence.

Without the firsthand experience of the disasters that are forecast, the projected outcome seems somehow unreal. We can’t imagine them as part of our future, therefore consequence is not a motivator.

Hollywood has provided spectacular visualisations of that which we might face. Perhaps it is because of the Hollywood drama that we find the potential outcome to be fantasy.

4. Divided opinion

There are significant numbers of rank and file citizens who simply don’t believe the science. They reject the notion of human-induced climate change altogether. So, essentially, there is nothing to fix.

5. Prioritization

We can imagine the consequences of climate change, but they seem so distant relative to the immediacy factor requirement of the life we’re living now.

We know the consequences if we don’t pay the mortgage. We know the consequences if we don’t get the car to the mechanic. The kids demand entertainment, and we certainly know the consequences of bored children.

The life of the average family is very busy with immediate demands. “Solar’s a great idea…but it’ll have to wait until we have a spare moment to think about it.”

6. Poor leadership

Make no mistake. The 1.6 million homes with solar, the steady growth of solar uptake, and indeed the solar industry itself is a result of government policy.

Should we applaud them for what they have done, or should they be criticised for what they are not doing?

The politicisation of the issue, with its bickering and vastly different views on a way forward, clearly waters down any sense of urgency about climate change. It would stand to reason that muddled, reactionary policy doesn’t inspire us.

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7. We’re threat weary

Communism, nuclear holocaust, terrorism, pandemics, China, Russia, North Korea. The last 50 years have seen a huge number of threats to our safety and the existence of life as we know it.

These threats above were, and are currently, huge news. A couple of them have certainly impacted our sense of safety. In the modern era of news as a commodity that is in our face 24 hours a day, we get sensational commentary about threats very regularly.

Interestingly, the apocalyptical threats are yet to come to fruition. They didn’t happen. The other threats have next to no impact on our daily lives.

Is it a case of the boy who cried wolf?
 

8. Lack of understanding

Is it simply that we don’t know enough? Is our education, our critical reasoning skills lacking to the point where we don’t see the issue at all?

This list is by no means complete. Think of others. Think of where you sit. There is also the alternative view that we really are doing all we can, and what we have done to this point is a great achievement. You think? 

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Conclusion

After 18 years of Australian solar incentives and subsidies, the vast majority of Australian households and business have not installed solar. The statistics and timeline clearly show that the 1.6 million that have done it, did so primarily because of the government-based solar incentives and the access to cheap power.

What motivates people in the first place is saving money on power. Second billing goes to the incentive. It’s affordable to install.

The message that we really need to see is: Get Your Solar System Here and Do Your Part to Save the Planet!

There is a very good argument suggesting that without the incentive, solar would have been unaffordable for most. We simply couldn’t do it, even if we wanted to, and even if we wanted to do it to save the planet. Too expensive.

The household expenditure numbers highlighted earlier suggest something different, however. It appears we did have the money, at least in 2016.

If we had redistributed some of the money we had allocated to entertainment, fashion and alcohol, you’d find there may well be enough for so many of us to install a solar array, even without the incentive. Often ‘can’t afford’ means won’t allocate based on current personal priorities.

80% of Australians adults, the vast majority, are saying that they prefer solar and renewables. A touch above 50% of the population have indicated they believe climate change is a critical threat to our vital interests.

However, solar, a very easy, very affordable and highly effective contribution we can all make, has only been embraced by 16% of households.

These numbers would suggest that we believe, we want, but not enough to pay for it and line up as we do when the latest iPhone is released.

Like Timmy, we need to be guided under reward and sanction. We need assistance, until such time that we do it off our own bat. We need to extend the Australian solar incentive.

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