Last month, a presentation by Western Australia’s state-owned electricity retailer, Synergy, suggested that, within a decade, residential buildings may use the grid for only 10% of their energy supply, thanks to a combination of smart building and appliances, together with solar and battery storage.
The presentation, titled ‘The Challenges of Creative Destruction for the Electricity Industry’, was delivered last month by the Synergy chairman, Lyndon Rowe. In the same week the electricity retailer proposed a controversial ‘Sun Tax’ on solar power users effectively doubling the charge to connect the state’s more than 191,000 solar households to the grid. Under the proposal, WA home owners who have invested in solar technology could see their annual electricity charges increase from around Au$820 to Au$1666.
Rowe, who claims to be “a believer” in rooftop solar, reasons that the annual charges of solar households don’t reflect the actual cost of being connected to the network. “I’m a believer and it’s a segment that will continue to grow,” he told Perth radio. “They are not paying the actual fixed cost of being connected to the network. That means other consumers have to pay or the taxpayers have to pay. That’s not fair. That’s not efficient”.
While there is some logic to the argument it neglects the fact that we, globally, are trying to encourage the deployment of clean energy. In addition, the proposal’s timing has been highly criticised, coming just a week after the climate conscious result of the COP21 summit in Paris.
"It's bad timing, the whole world is focused on climate change strategies in Paris and we're going to whack solar owners", Curtin University professor of sustainability Peter Newman said. "Solar is the future and it's like Synergy is fighting that trend".
While Solar Citizens consumer campaigner, Reece Turner, says the proposed charge is discriminatory against solar homeowners and risks stunting the state’s investment in cheaper, clean energy. “It’s a ludicrous idea that Premier Barnett should step in and rule out immediately”, Turner said in a statement on Tuesday. “More than one in five homes are powered by the sun. These people have made the sensible decision to invest in clean, abundant energy and should not be penalised”. As Turner also notes, the proposal looks a lot like Synergy is looking for a scapegoat to cover up for it’s spiralling budget losses.
Mr Rowe suggested that funds from his “tax” could be spent on better options, "the alternative is that $1 billion could be spent on 10 new high schools, a new hospital like Fiona Stanley Hospital every three years, and a new museum every year or two," he said. No doubt his critics will see a man using education, culture and healthcare as a barrier to environmental responsibility creating a scenario where solar uptake would slow and utilities would have more time to adapt to the green movement.
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Western Australia was also in the energy scrutiny spotlight earlier last year for regulation that prohibits homes with battery storage from feeding electricity back into the grid, effectively banning residential energy storage. Synergy and Western Power, the state owned electricity companies are being accused of erecting walls where none should exist. They are asking solar customers to sign contracts promising not to install battery storage or electric vehicles, for fear of having their solar disconnected from the grid.
But the latest twist in the story, Western Australia Energy Minister Mike Nahan has said that Synergy is preparing to enter the battery market. He said batteries are not yet economical for the vast majority of households, but that Synergy will be “ready to go” with household systems when prices come down. It is expected that Synergy will likely be ready to start selling batteries as of the middle of this year, following the anticipated launch of a range of solar PV products and energy management solutions in early 2016.
While cynical environmentalists may tell this story as the dirty energy giants putting profit before the planet, another perspective may see the last gasp efforts of the fossil fuel power sector in a losing battle. Ninety percent of all coal mined in mineral rich Western Australia is used in power stations, and the remainder in the Mineral Sands production. This is not a story of “the man” foregoing the environment for profit, but the rousing prequel to a greener Western Australia of smart technology and decentralised power supply.