Poorer Households Switching To Solar Faster Than The Rich

FairfaxPeter Hannam

As urban myths go, the one about solar panels being a luxury enjoyed mostly by the wealthy with poorer households left out has endured well beyond reality.
In a research first, the Victoria Energy Policy Centre analysed electricity bills of 10,051 households provided by CHOICE, a fifth with solar power, in NSW, Queensland, South Australia and Victoria. Researchers then used socio-economic data and house prices from Domain.com.au to profile the owners.
Solar panels are not just mainstream, they even turn up more often on lower and middle-income homes that you might expect. Credit: Nick Moir
Contrary to public perceptions, solar panel uptake is proportionally more common in roofs of those with lower- to middle socio-economic standing, the study - commissioned by Solar Citizens - found.
“People are reaching for ways to get control over their energy costs and for millions of low- and middle-income households, solar is the best way to do that," Solar Citizens's national director, Joseph Scales, said.
In fact, the wealthiest decile had the lowest proportional solar uptake, and the poorest had the highest.

Victoria Energy Policy Centre director Bruce Mountain said a range of reasons may be behind the relative lack of interest in solar among the well-heeled. These include potential for heritage restrictions, heavily treed yards shading panels, and a lower responsiveness to rising prices.
Buying panels is “not at the top of their list”, Professor Mountain said. By contrast, soaring power bills have made solar power increasingly attractive for less wealthy families particularly as solar cell prices plunge.
“For most people if you have a north-facing roof in any of our cities, solar will pay for itself in five years or less,” he said.
The study comes as NSW political parties offer a range of policies to spur solar and batteries before next month's election, and follows the Andrews Labor government's promise to help 650,000 households to get solar panels.
Rooftop solar jumped 43 per cent to a record last year, while the leap in new utility-scale solar farms meant the overall capacity tripled to about 3775 megawatts.
Among the other findings of the study was that average households with solar power bought 9 per cent less electricity from the grid, but consumed about a quarter more power than those without panels.
Often that variance was because homes with solar energy - particularly in a belt of about 10 kilometres from the city centres - were also households most likely to draw the biggest benefit from solar.
“In terms of uptake, it’s actually pleasingly rational," Professor Mountain said. "The people who are economically the people to be getting the greatest benefit from it, appear to be installing it in the greatest numbers.”
Not usually this large: Daniel Epstein installed a 17kW solar system on his house in Warrandyte, on Melbourne's northern edge. Credit: Arsineh Houspian
The study also found solar households exporting power back to the grid were in effect subsidising the energy bills of those without panels.
"Around one third of households  in all states sell their electricity to their retailers at a rate that is lower than it would cost their retailers to buy that electricity in the spot markets," the report found. "Retailers profit from this to the extent that they do not pass this on to other customers in lower prices."
The benefits of solar, though, were being blunted by high fixed charges, particularly in Victoria,  compared with variable energy charges.
"Governments should clamp down on standing charges," Professor Mountain said.
The report noted that the fixed component of retail residential offers in Australia "are higher than in any other country as far as we know".
The Victoria Energy Policy Centre plans to extend the study after being given access to a much larger data set of Victorians' energy bills by the state government.



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