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by Natalie Collard, Executive General Manager – Industry Development, Clean Energy Council

A funny thing happens when politicians spend an entire year talking about high power bills and an ‘energy crisis’ – many people start looking into producing their own power rather than continuing to put up with skyrocketing energy prices. With prices for rooftop solar power systems continuing to decline, the sun was definitely shining on the industry in 2017. So much so that the industry logged its biggest year in Australian history.

Early estimates suggest that the amount of solar generation last year eclipsed the previous best in 2012 by around 20 per cent, as businesses and households switched on to renewable energy on a scale never before seen.

Some 1.25GW of new solar PV was installed, shattering the previous mark of just over 1GW which was set five years earlier in the middle of the first solar boom.

With solar being used by 1.7 million homes and tens of thousands of businesses, it is not alternative energy anymore.

When solar is combined with batteries for greater flexibility, it looks more and more like the energy source of the future.

One of the big differences is that back in 2012, many state governments still offered premium rates for solar electricity supplied by private homes.

These sweeteners are now all but gone, and the industry is moving steadily towards long-term sustainability based on price and consumer demand.

Today the cost of power affects all consumers. Farmers, airports, shopping centres, apartment buildings, homes and small businesses are all installing solar power and storage to take the heat out of their power bills.

It’s not the latte belt which is most interested in solar – it’s rural towns and mortgage belt suburbs where families feel every rise in electricity prices, and they are taking action to save over the
long term.

With more than 50 times more solar power installed in 2017 than what was being installed a decade earlier, the data emphasises that more Australians are worried about their power bills than ever before.

Solar has become one of the most affordable options to drive down the figure on the bill. Combined with seemingly constant media and political attention, bill shock has become a national issue.

And consumers have definitely been tuning in.

Skills shortages as industry scrambles to meet demand 

With the industry booming, one of the challenges is finding skilled solar to finish all the installation work that is being booked by customers.

There is always a challenge with meeting demand towards the end of the year, with lots of people wanting a system to be installed before Christmas, and installers who are intent on taking their summer break just like everyone else.

But 2017 was very different. Many solar businesses are reporting there is simply not skilled staff to meet demand, particularly over the last quarter of the calendar year.

Wait times of 3-4 weeks are blowing out to 2-3 months in some cases, pushing up wages for experienced installers who are suddenly in high demand.

On the plus side, these are the kinds of challenges you get when an industry is booming, and you’d much rather manage this situation than the reverse – where you have plenty of staff but not enough work.

The market is responding. There are opportunities for electricians in particular to either renew their solar accreditation, or for sparkies who haven’t previously worked with solar to upskill through training and work with solar and storage for the first time.

The Clean Energy Council runs an accreditation program for solar installers and, as you might expect given the record installation numbers last year, more solar installers were accredited at the end of 2017 (just under 5,000) than during the previous high water mark in 2012.

Just under 100 new solar installers were accredited per month last year, a 60 per cent rise on the year before.

We are hopeful that the influx of new installers will help to clear the bottleneck.

Another bright year predicted in 2018

While it’s always hard to know what the year will bring, many of the fundamentals are in place for another very strong year for the solar industry.

Many businesses are finding it difficult to secure affordable, long-term contracts for their electricity, making solar and storage increasingly attractive options – particularly with the range of finance options that are now available.

This medium-scale section of the market has been driving a large part of the growth over the last few years.

Meanwhile, mums and dads in outer suburbs and regional towns will continue to turn towards household renewable energy to help protect them from future price hikes.

According to Warwick Johnston, the Managing Director of SunWiz, there are six key factors that will influence solar PV in 2018:

  1. Electricity prices and feed-in tariffs
  2. Rate that electricity prices are rising
  3. PV system prices
  4. Awareness
  5. Momentum
  6. Market robustness

Johnston says that with electricity prices set to remain high, the momentum in the sector and a robust market, the residential and SME market is “primed to continue” at over 1.2GW in 2018.

Combined with a record construction year for the large-scale part of the market, solar is well positioned to be the new gold rush out to 2020 and beyond.

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