It’s widely known that Australia is land which has keenly embraced solar power. In fact, it’s been held that Australia has had the highest uptake of...
The story of solar power in Australia is truly one of the outstanding success stories of this century. Just as predictions were in place years earlier that Australia would come to rely on solar in future in a huge way - and also have the capacity to work towards becoming a solar power superpower - the growth of it over the past decade (or so) in particular has indeed been remarkable. What’s more, even during the pandemic years - despite all the difficulties the outbreak of it has posed to the ability to keep workers and businesses in operation - residential rooftop solar power has continued to grow Down Under.
Now in 2023, we’re really arriving at a crucial point when it comes not only to the ongoing growth of residential rooftop solar, but also the state of solar power as a whole across the nation. This is because - just as the 2020s overall so far have been good years for solar power (and thus the nation’s push towards increasing Australia’s renewables capacity) - in many ways the avenues to further optimise the growth of solar power in the remaining years of the decade, will be heavily informed by decisions taken in the next few years.
That’s why now is a good time to look at the state of solar power in Australia during the 2020s. Specifically, how far we come, and what more should be done.
A Word on Wind at the Outset
It’s of course recognised the importance of wind power in addition to solar power when discussing the future of renewable energy in Australia. The following in-depth discussion of solar and storage doesn’t seek to diminish or exclude what wind power can bring to the table. It’s no revelation to say in some ways wind offers some unique advantages - e.g. it’s capacity to operate effectively 24 hours a day if wind conditions are suitable, whereas the present tech of solar power will see energy generated during the daylight hours alone - but such discussions can occur elsewhere. Meanwhile, this article seeks to highlight in particular what solar power has achieved so far, and what more it can offer in future.
A Farewell to Fossil Fuels
The first factor to recognise in this dynamic is that the role of fossil fuel energy sources continues to exist in the present, but - put very simply - fossil fuel energy sources truly have no place in the future of Australian energy generation. It’s no secret there is a small, but loud group in the contemporary public debate, who while entitled to express their view in a free society, also appear to want to claim an entitlement over their own set of ‘facts’. To them, climate change remains something of a rumour, and - according to their thinking - even if it’s real, it’s not something that needs to be worried about for many, many decades. In the meantime, according to these stakeholders, there’s no reason to not keep utilising fossil fuel sources, and indeed there’s also no justification for not continuing to build more! Suffice to say, this perspective has not only long been out of touch with scientific evidence and the mainstream Australian consensus for many years now, but is ultimately becoming a distance outlier in our national conversation that is seeing the great majority of Australians keen on more renewable uptake, and reducing emissions, each and every year.
A New Era for Nuclear?
In the years and decades prior there has been an occasional entertaining of the idea that nuclear power stations could be introduced into the Australian energy mix. As it stands, Australia does have one lone nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights in Sydney, but it’s not utilised for power purposes (and is instead used for research, among other applications). As we’ve discussed elsewhere here at STC, if nuclear indeed ever had a window in Australia, that moment has since passed.
Solar power can offer numerous benefits that nuclear power cannot - such as its capacity to be decentralised and provide a two-way exchange of energy to and from residential homes, and it’s total absence of risk surrounding a nuclear incident (however small that risk may be) - and thus, while it’s objectively true a stronger case (even if not a totally persuasive one) could’ve been made for nuclear decades ago before the renewables revolution, at this point in time the future of Australian energy must be about renewables like solar.
Looking Back and Planning Ahead Concerning Solar’s Success
In order to understand where Australia is set to go with solar power between now and 2030, it’s first essential to look back. As aforementioned, solar power has had a remarkable ascent from being something of a novelty (informed by previous gen tech limitations) to an absolute phenomenon. The progress made so far is not only already terrific in and of itself, but it can also serve as an important foundation upon which future growth is based. An example of this surrounds the ever-growing popularity of rooftop solar systems across Australian properties.
Previously, there’s been discussion in the nation - in addition to similar conversations in other locales around the world - surrounding the value in making the inclusion of a rooftop solar system mandatory for all new home builds. This is something that there is unquestionably a lot of worth in considering within Australian jurisdictions going forward. Yes, there are also other design considerations surrounding Australian homes which ideally would also be subject to review and reform going forward - so as to help see new homes and neighbourhoods can lead the way in creating a more sustainable local environment - but making rooftop solar systems mandatory would be of benefit to the new household, the neighbourhood, and nation, and the planet overall.
Such policy pursuits as the enactment of mandatory solar power installations on new homes are important to consider now in 2023. Yes, rooftop solar power has been growing well, but in order for Australia to really seize upon its potential to become a renewable energy superpower, it must continue to grow proactively in this space - not just simply be comfortable on ‘autopilot’ mode.
This is applicable not only in the residential rooftop solar space, but (while best addressed in another article) in the large-scale arena the same.
Charging Up the Debate
A critical consideration for Australia proceeding through the 2020s will be not only how it generates renewable energy, but also how it stores it.
Why Storage is Essential
Although in an ideal world renewable energy installations would generate at the same time the energy is needed (and energy would not be needed at times when renewable energy sources aren’t generating as much) - in absence of battery storage, a great deal of excess green energy could ultimately be wasted, and excess green energy can cause another problem too. Already, the challenge surrounding this has been seen in South Australia.
Yes, this southern state has made truly tremendous gains when it comes to green energy over the past decade - and this progress should absolutely be commended. But an issue that has arisen surrounding the rapid embrace of green energy in South Australia is the risk that excess solar being fed into the grid by residential installations can grow the risk of power failures. Ultimately, Australian energy grids (as with those around the world) were historically designed for one-way transmission of electricity - e.g. from a coal plant to a home. With rooftop solar systems, the rise of a two-way exchange of electricity on the grid has arisen, and managing that effectively is essential. Not only to ensure that the risk of power failures are neutralised, but also to ensure excess solar energy that is generated isn’t wasted
Solving the Storage Challenge
There are a few ways in which the issue of what to do with excess renewable energy can be addressed. If strictly speaking from a technical point of view, a way to avoid the issue of excess is to increase consumption. But nobody is recommending households around the nation leave their lights, vacuum cleaners, and TVs on all day, in a quest to burn through any excess their rooftop solar system may generate.
Furthermore, ultimately, as our daily life and work continues to become more digitised and reliant on excess technology, it can be expected that the power needs of a home will increase over time too, and thus in this respect at least, the excess energy that a rooftop solar system generates today could well be significantly lower in 5 or 10 years time. Some households which anticipate this - and want to ensure an increase in demand is matched by an increase in renewable energy capacity - may look to upgrade their existing rooftop solar system where possible, and/or add a separate off-grid rooftop solar system, or perhaps even portable solar panels into their household’s own energy mix.
Yet overall, whether a household has a minimal or substantial excess of rooftop solar energy now and into the future, it’s counter-productive to see that excess wasted when it could otherwise be (presuming it’s not being sent back to the grid to take advantage of the feed-in tariff) stored and utilised later.
It’s of course the case that at an individual household level, an avenue already exists to help address this. Many homes across the nation which have a rooftop solar system already also have a battery system accompany it. Given battery technology is only set to progress further in years ahead, in this regard the storage challenge at a household level could be viewed as quite easy to resolve in one sense.
For instance, the future could see mandates that new rooftop solar systems must be accompanied by a battery on installation, and households with existing rooftop solar systems could be provided batteries for free or via a subsidised government scheme, similar to those which have run for rooftop solar systems themselves for many years across Australia. Yet even if this were to occur, it would not address the issue of what to do with excess renewable energy generated via large-scale installations, such as solar farms.
A Big Transition Requires Big Batteries
For Australia to ‘think big’ about the installation of more green energy like solar and wind power, it also must do the same surrounding battery storage. Doing this will not only ensure excess energy is not wasted and does not pose a problem for energy grids, but the utilisation of batteries will help further secure reliability of supply, and provide backup energy in case of any hiccups. Just as it’s indeed important for a regular rooftop solar system to operate properly, when a nation is engaged in the transition to green energy and will come to rely on it exclusively going forward, the need to guarantee consistent supply and a backup of that supply is absolutely critical.
It’s also important to note having the right dynamic in this area will be made even more critical by the fact that solar technology is always improving. It’s no secret that right now the current generation of solar panels is going to work during day time hours, but once sunshine has left the sky the night time hours will see a solar system’s generating activities go down. This said, work is already indeed well underway in terms of bringing into being solar panels which can work at night, among other innovations in this area. Thus, in the future, there is the hope we shall ultimately see solar tech introduced into the market that could see homes generate renewable energy via their solar system 24 hours a day, and 7 days a week.
A Green Light for Greater Equity
Australia making the transition to 100% renewables is obviously a huge undertaking. One with massive implications not only for the future of our country, but ultimately the future of our planet. Getting to this 100% target will be a huge help in making our nation sustainable. What’s more, the rise of the green economy will also create many new jobs and businesses. But ultimately, just as these big moves are of course important to discuss, it’s also now a good time to touch on what must be avoided in future, and the benefits of more green energy at the grassroots level.
Choosing the Right Road
Australia has the capacity to become a renewable energy superpower. This is illustrated by the fact we’ve vast tracts of desert, that could in future come to host huge solar farms. Not only could huge solar installations like this eventually see solar energy from Australia exported to nations throughout Asia, but it’d also help see first and foremost that domestic energy needs are taken care of at home. With all this potential, it’s impossible to imagine Australia will ever be short of energy once the transition to the green era has occurred.
This has really important implications for our society, and ones we should be thinking about in-depth now. The fact is Australia is not a country where its people should expect to have to deal with soaring power bills in future. It’s no secret right now so many Australian households have been, and this is sadly informed by the fact that many years prior under the former Coalition federal government were lost, in terms of the progress we could’ve made to investing in renewables, instead of continuing to preference outdated, unsustainable, and increasingly inefficient fossil fuel infrastructure.
If such a government were permitted to gain power once more with the same attitudes towards renewables, it can be anticipated - based on present circumstances and perspectives - that any meaningful progress Australia is seeking to make in going green would be frustrated and delayed horrifically once more. But if Australia is able to continue on a better course, there is the prospect of a significant ongoing increase of renewable capacity each year, and a commensurate benefit for all Australians to be felt in time as a result.
The Grassroots Benefits of Going Green
An Australia that pursues the right path on going green will continue to see a substantial increase in rooftop solar systems introduced. In turn, for households which are presently unable to introduce a rooftop solar system into the mix - for reasons such as the household is currently renting the property and the property provider is (unfortunately) resistant to solar power, or the household is currently renovating and/or planning to move home, and thus circumstances are not right to install a rooftop solar system right now - increasing access to green energy via avenues like community batteries and blockchain peer-to-peer trading will be very important. Not only to aiding Australia in reaching its targets of being powered by 100% renewables and reaching net zero, but also in ensuring a greater equality when it comes to access to clean energy in Australia is achieved and maintained.
This goal surrounding energy equality is especially essential to pursue, as overall not every household may be able to acquire a rooftop solar system, and yet - just as alternatives such as the utilisation of portable solar panels can help ‘fill the gap’ - there is widespread support for renewable energy across the Australian population, and thus, ensuring every household that wishes to can tap into clean energy and make their own contribution to Australia going green, is vital.
The Avenue Available to Everyday Australians to Help Grow the Country’s Solar Capacity
There is never a bad time to consider acquiring solar if yet to do so.This said, 2023 is surely an especially good time to consider it. The installation of a rooftop solar system at home can help drive down the cost of electricity bills now, and provide some defence against any rise in them in future. A rooftop solar system will not only make a small, but significant contribution to making a local community cleaner and greener - and accordingly, help increase the nation’s solar power capacity overall - it can also come to serve as the epicentre of a modern smart and sustainable home.
This is an important consideration, for as we continue to find our daily lives and work become ever more digitised and reliant on electronic technology each year, so too can the need for more power in a home arise. With a rooftop solar system, extra energy that is clean and green can be acquired and utilised in the home. What’s more, in addition to a conventional rooftop solar system connected to the local grid, it can also be worthwhile considering the utilisation of an additional solar system if really keen to maximise the solar power capacity available on a property. Examples of avenues to pursue additional solar capacity include an off-grid ground-mounted solar system, or an off-grid rooftop solar system which could be utilised for ‘external’ household tasks such as charging an EV.
Portable solar panels can also be utilised around the property too. A regular set of portable solar panels cannot be expected to rival a new cutting-edge quality rooftop solar system in terms of capabilities, but such a set can certainly serve as a useful accompaniment. In turn, if a household is presently unable to pursue a rooftop solar system and/or ground-mounted version, then portable solar panels can provide a path to commence utilising solar power now, while waiting for circumstances to change so it's possible to consider a permanent installation in future.
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The story of solar power in Australia is truly one of the outstanding success stories of this century. Just as predictions were in place years...