Date May 1, 2014 Peter Hannam Environment Editor, The Sydney Morning Herald
Solar photovoltaic systems will continue to spread across Australian rooftops because of rising electricity costs, “great irradiation” and cheaper finance, the head of the second largest PV producer in the US has said.
SunPower Corporation has picked Australia as one of two sites globally for a pilot storage program combining solar PV and batteries that the company hopes will one day make it economic to leave the power grid.
“The tariff structure in Australia will provide a strong foundation to homeowners with the incentive to consider distributed generation and storage,” SunPower chief executive Tom Werner said.
“Consumers will go from being essentially passive to having total control of your energy bill within five to 10 years,” he said.
The Abbott government is conducting another review of the Renewable Energy Target. The goal now calls for electricity supply from clean energy sources to reach 41,000 gigawatt-hours by 2020, although many commentators expect the review to recommend a reduction or delay of the target in part because of slumping demand.
Any dilution would be “a step in the wrong direction,” Mr Werner said. “In most countries, we see them pulling in their targets and increasing them.”
SunPower has installed about 7.5 gigawatts of solar PV – or more than double Australia’s total – and boasts of industry-leading efficiency levels above 20 per cent.
The company has also attracted some big partners, including US billionaire Warren Buffett and French energy group Total. Last month, Google and SunPower invested $US250 million ($269 million) to lease solar PV systems to US residents at a cost typically less than their regular power bill.
Mr Werner said the Google tie-up would bring PV to 18,000 households and was “very scalable”. While the company is yet to discuss extending the program to Australia, the potential exists.
“We find all over the world people pay their energy bills. It’s pretty intuitive that it should work well here,” Mr Werner said.
He predicted that financing would play an increasing role in spurring the take-up of PV as governments rolled back incentives, such as feed-in tariffs, and the precipitous drop in panel prices in the past few years levelled off.
In California, SunPower’s home state, the ratio of cash to finance has gone from a 70-30 split to the reverse in just three years.
“I’d be willing to say that it’s likely we’ll see something similar here,” Mr Werner said, adding that SunPower’s partnership with Community First Credit Union offered loans for solar PV at a 7.1 per cent annual rate.
The company also has a stake in a Victorian electricity retailer, owning 42 per cent of Diamond Energy. SunPower would use such a foothold to refocus more on storage and energy management for customers should the Abbott government cut support for the industry, Mr Werner said.