With rooftop solar uptake in Australia experiencing another boom – this time with warnings – and battery storage poised to take off, we have put together a collection of some of the top tips for consumers of residential solar and storage, gathered from industry players and experts.
1. Rooftop solar is great value, premium FiT or no
Even as various states’ premium solar feed-in tariffs evaporate on January 1 2017, rooftop solar remains a great investment for a huge percentage of Australian homes. Why? Because, as Solar Quotes’ Finn Peacock puts it, “solar has reached the point where it is the cheapest form of electricity you can put into your house.”
In fact, according to Renate Egan, a director of leading smart solar firm Solar Analytics, “it’s actually better value to install PV panels on your roof now than it was when energy companies were paying more money for solar,” she says.
“In 2008, a quality, 3kW system cost $20,000. It will cost you less than $6000 now,” Egan wrote here earlier this week. “There are big changes ahead for solar owners. Those who do their homework will find plenty of opportunity to stay ahead of the game.”
According to Peacock, households that use a lot of electricity during the day, or can run their appliances on timers, are a natural fit for solar and can see very short paybacks of 4-5 years (20-25 per cent returns).
“If you are at home during the day or have pool pumps which run all day, your self-consumption can be up to 65 per cent (with exports only 35 per cent) and solar is likely to be a very good investment.
“If you are not at home during the day (hello to all you 9-5ers!), you will typically self-consume about 30% of a well sized solar system, pushing the simple payback out to 8-10 years. Bear in mind that this is still a 10-12 per cent return on your investment.”
2: Do your homework, don’t rush in
For those looking to install solar – and perhaps even battery storage, as well – for the first time, the best place to start is by monitoring your home energy usage. How much do you use, and when do you use it?
As Kairos Power’s Bjorn Sturmberg has advised, each solar and battery storage system must be sized for the household’s individual circumstances – and this is not necessarily an easy task.
But to guide consumer, there are free online solar calculators; a lot of solar companies, like Solar Choice, have them on their websites to help customers work out what size system they should get, and what sort of savings and return on investment they should expect.
Sturmberg also recommends getting a number quotes – solarquotes.com.au is a good starting point, offering three free quotes from vetted installers – and making sure you compare “apples with apples” in terms of the technology that is being offered, particularly in the case of inverters, which are a key component of a smart solar system.
And finally, don’t believe the hype. “Don’t feel pressured by shonky salesmen who are implying that if you don’t sign on the dotted line right now, you’ll lose the rebate (the federal STC multiplier that is being wind back gradually as of January 1, 2017),” says Peacock.
“At worst you’ll lose one fifteenth of the rebate if you delay your decision until the New Year. A small price to pay for making an informed decision.”
3. Price – and brand – matters
As solar installer Nigel Morris pointed out recently on RenewEconomy, “there is nowhere on the planet where you can get solar as cheap as you can in Australia.” But that doesn’t stop people looking for – or offering – a bargain. Unfortunately, when it comes to rooftop solar systems, cheap is often nasty.
Ultimately, says Morris, consumers become “confounded and utterly confused … (and) don’t know who to believe. They’re nervous about paying double – typically that’s the price gap (between top tier and bottom tier solar), at least double – so that’s a big leap of faith.”
In an effort to help consumers navigate this leap, Australia’s top two solar industry bodies – the Clean Energy Council and the Australian Solar Council – have just this month released new programs to educate the public on quality solar installers.
The ASC announced the launch of a “public facing education campaign, encouraging families to choose a quality installer,” alongside a new training program for installers.
While the CEC launched a new campaign advising solar buyers to look for an Approved Solar Retailer to make sure they get the best possible quality and service – and avoid getting a bad deal. The CEC also has this list of accredited installers and of accredited panels and inverters.
But, as Nigel Morris noted in a One Step article in November, the fluid nature of quality control in the solar panel market was clearly illustrated in the CEC’s updated list of approved solar panels, with an astounding 76 per cent of solar brands no longer listed as approved for use in Australia.
“This slashes the number of approved solar panel brands available from more than 400 in 2012, to 217, as of (November),” Morris wrote. “Notably, in 2012 409 brands were listed and 310 of those have been removed. However, 118 new brands have been listed during that time, bringing the new total to 217.”
4: Make your solar smart
For those who already have solar and are wanting to make the most of their investment – particularly after losing the premium FiT – solar monitoring is a must.
Despite leading the world on per capita rooftop solar uptake, data shows only 5-10 per cent of Australia’s solar households use monitoring technology to understand their solar usage or improve their system’s performance.
As we reported here, this has led to a situation in which it is estimated that more than half of all Australian rooftop solar systems are underperforming. Another 14 per cent are not working at all at any given point in time.
“Solar monitoring isn’t a ‘nice to have’ product,” said Solar Analytics CEO Stefan Jarnason at this year’s All Energy Australia conference – “It’s essential.”
Jarnason believes all rooftop solar owners should be able to access “a comprehensive solar dashboard to determine how their system is performing, what needs fixing or improving, where they are consuming their energy and to optimise their system to make their solar investment work harder for them. And it needs to be easy to understand.”
Conveniently, Solar Analytics produces precisely such a product, as do NSW company Wattwatchers, Reposit Power and CSIRO spin-off Evergen, to name but a few.
5. Battery storage is not compulsory for solar homes … yet
…But it is extremely exciting, highly competitive and getting cheaper by the month. So, again, it will pay to do your homework and keep tabs on who’s who in the market and what they are offering, at what price.
As with solar, what’s most important for consumers is to make sure you get the right battery for your home, your solar system and your needs.
According to a recent two-part analysis on battery storage by energy market researcher Energeia, for most houses looking to invest in a battery system now, smaller is probably better.
“For most solar storage offerings at the moment …the optimal system is actually around 1-2kWh,” said Energeia analyst Jacob Kharoufeh at the All-Energy Australia conference in Melbourne in October.
“Initially, until the cost comes crashing down, there is a niche market for operators offering modular units,” he said.
As we reported here, there are a number of small battery offerings in the Australian market that fit the bill on this, including Enphase Energy’s 1.2kWh lithium-iron phosphate AC Battery, which as Solar Quotes notes, was designed to be scalable and offers “great $/kWh if cycling twice a day.”
Aquion and Sonnenbatterie both also offer smaller, scalable battery units, at 2.2kWh and 2kWh respectively. On Aquion, Solar Quotes says it is a great price per kWh, “modular, environmentally friendly disposal, inherently safe chemistry (low fire risk compared to lithium ion)” and is also available in a 24V version, which enables the use of lower cost inverters and chargers.
But as Jarnason noted at the same conference, “Payback is not what everybody is looking for.”
For many solar households looking at battery storage, they just want to make the most of their solar investment and use as little grid supplied energy as possible. In which case, there is plenty on offer, including the latest offering from Tesla, which has hit the market at more than double the capacity of its predecessor and nearly half the installed cost.
“The reduction per kWh of solar and of batteries is on a great trajectory,” said Chris Williams, the head of accredited Australian Powerwall reseller Natural Solar. “Where the market is today, compared to where I thought it would be; I think we’re five or six years ahead,” he told One Step Off The Grid in November.
According to Williams, rooftop solar coupled with a Powerwall 2 could save the average Australian family of four save up to $1,500 on their annual energy bill.
Another accredited Tesla reseller, CSR Bradford, says its solar “ChargePack” including the new Powerwall “is capable of helping a family of five save over $2,000” on electricity annually.
Considering the Powerwall is expected to retail in Australia at around $8,800, for the battery alone that looks like about a four-year return on investment. If you’re adding solar, too, you can add another two years to that. And in some parts of South Australia, as Bruce Mountain explains here, battery storage is already offering significant savings – as much as 25 per cent on annual electricity bill costs – to households with solar.
And there are plenty of other interesting battery storage brands out and about on the Australian market, including the newly launched and competitive LG Chem RESU 9.8kWh, the higher-end Sonnenbatterie offer, and Australia’s own Redflow.