Feb 032010

Let’s take a quick look at Mr Abbott’s so-called ‘Direct Action’ climate change policy.

A quick look is all we can manage right now because there is no detail to take in, only the political rhetoric, but the same can be said for the government’s CPRS to all intents and purposes. One encourages business and industry to play nice & do the right thing, while the other tells business and industry what the rules of the game are and awards penalties for infringements. One offers the tax payer bugger all to account for the inevitable costs of playing nice, while the other plans to compensate 92% of consumers to, in some cases, 110% of the inevitable cost increases which will result from failures of compliance with the game rules. That compensation, by the way, will be via increases to government welfare payments, so if you have kids, receive a pension or even collect the dole, you’ll be compensated. If you don’t qualify for, or in the normal course of eking out your existence don’t receive an form of government subsidy, then it’s tough titties for you. Either way, the tax payer/consumer will be stung, make no mistake. Why? because the tax payer/consumer can’t fight back, save for that one day every three years when the democracy faery visits. Besides, the tax payer/consumer suffers from severe memory lapses anyway, so even a visit from the faery is unlikely to make much difference.

So, solar energy and bio-char are Mr Abbott’s go. Nothing has been said at all about geo-thermal, wave or wind power, land-fill methane collection or solar-thermal technologies. Only the feel-good, look-outside-and-see-it technologies. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I won’t be ploughing up my backyard so I can add in charcoal, so it’s solar energy for the householder I’ll take a gander at here. Actually, it’s proper description is photovoltaic power generation or grid-tied solar power. Depends on where you live and how your neighbourhood talks. The latter is American terminology. In this country there are state and federal incentive schemes offering to assist the consumer in installation of photovoltaic, or PV, power generation units. They vary across the nation so for this exercise I’ll just use what’s appropriate to my own situation here in Queensland. The Queensland Government Solar Bonus Scheme can be found here. There are a number of retailers and installers of PV units, which must include the appropriate inverters, controllers, meters and of course, duly authorised and accredited installation. A regime not dissimilar to the federal government home insulation scheme. We’ve all heard & read about the ructions involved with that one.

Across the board in Australia, state sponsored, federally funded incentive schemes offer up to $5,000 on average off the cost of a PV installation of 1Kilowatt. That is to say, an installation which is capable of generating direct current electricity of 1,000 watts peak power. Sufficient to run, say, all of your household appliances, computer, refrigerator, washing machine, oven & cook top and household lighting. You’d be pushing the envelope, but supposedly 1Kw can handle that. a 1.5Kw system would be more comfortable, but for the purposes of this exercise, let’s stick to the average. Look around and you’ll discover that such an installation, depending on location, roof angle, etc, you can expect to pay between $8,000 and $12,000. In my rambles through the interwebs, I came across this mob who just happen to be quite close to me. Beware of such offers, as they seem too good to be true, and in the case of this one, they are. Have a read of the site by all means, but I reckon if I told you that 99% of reseller/installers grant you a 20 year warranty on the PV panels and 10 years on the inverters, you’ll pretty soon cotton on. That aside, the site has some valuable data, which when read in conjunction with the state government site, should start to open your eyes.

Energy providers, in Queensland at least, offer buyers of PV installations who connect their units into the grid, a net feed-in tariff. That’s a benefit to the householder of $0.44 per kilowatt hour (kWh) on the nett differential between what the household uses in grid power, and what the household generates from it’s roof. That’s not bad when you consider the average main supply charge equates to $0.18/kWh. Bonus!, you might exclaim, but wait…..there’s more. Or should that be less. The Qld govt Solar Bonus Scheme site states:

The solar bonus of 44c/kWh will be paid for electricity fed into the grid at times when the solar system generates more electricity than the household or business is using at any instant.

….at any instant. Now, read on.

When the meter reader visits a customer’s home or business at the end of the quarter, the total amount of electricity exported to the grid and the total amount imported from the grid will be read and passed onto the retailer to calculate the bill. The customer’s quarterly solar bonus payment for this excess electricity exported to the grid will be deducted from their total grid-connected electricity consumption charge on their electricity bill. If the solar bonus payments are greater than the total grid-connected electricity consumption charges over a 12-month period, the customer is entitled to have this balance refunded, rather than maintaining an ongoing credit.

There’s a gross inconsistency in that detail. In one passage, you’re told you’ll be paid for any surplus power your system generates – that’s over and above what you’re pulling from the grid – at any instant. Then there’s an immediate about face in the process, where the meter reader takes note of respective grid & PV system meter totals of power generated and used, passes that on and it’s that net difference, the total net difference not the progressive hourly/daily/weekly/monthly sub-totals which are taken into account. You might go on vacation for a week say, in winter, not using fan heaters and what-not, then return during a severe cold snap and receive absolutely no benefit for the power you’ve pumped into the grid during the time you were away, not using lights, computer, washing machine, power tools, coffee machine or clothes dryer. Think about that for a moment and suddenly that sweet $0.26/kWh bonus vanishes into the smoke, reflected by the mirror, held up to you by a government to bloody tight-fisted to genuinely want to encourage people to be involved in being energy conscious. If our state and federal governments were in any way serious about such encouragement, they’d be adopting a gross feed-in tariff as Germany has done, where every second roof has a PV system installed.

Moving along…..let’s assume for a moment that you’ve found that you can afford to spend the net difference between cost and rebate, of a 1Kw PV system. You’ll be outlaying, net, approximately $3,500 to $5,500. Good luck to you. Mr Abbott has said he’ll kick in another grand, so let’s adjust that shortfall to somewhere between $2,500 and $4,500. Reasonable.  Where or how he plans on getting that $1,000 from remains in the realm of fantasy, but let’s not be churlish out it. I’ll use my own power usage as an example. Lords know, we chew it up. Over the last 12 months, or four billing quarters, we’ve used 12,428 kWh in grid electricity. Over that period, electricity costs in Queensland have soared more than 30%, however if I breakdown the last bill and summarise the cost per KwH between domestic and controlled (hot water) tariffs, the cost per KwH equates to $0.1504. The average 1Kw PV system is rated to generate some 2,000KwH in electricity annually. That’s 500 KwH per quarter, or billing period. My annual usage averaged over four quar
ters equates to 3,107KwH, so on average, I’d save through the advent of PV power generation, $75.20 per quarter. Cool, but that’s a gross feed-in calculation. In terms of the government’s largesse, you only get ‘paid’ for power you pump into the grid over and above what you use at any given point in time, which in reality is when the meter reader pops around. I can’t speak for anyone else, but in this house, there’s at least one, more likely two computers – desktop and laptop – running at any one time, an aquarium filter & air pump, refrigerator by two, pedestal fans by three at this time of year and at least seven or more energy saving fluro bulbs in light sockets. That’s the minimum.

Integral Energy have a rather neat energy calculator on their website designed to help the poor dumb fu…..customer work out their usage & associated cost. Have a look and you’ll discover that one laptop and one desktop, running 14 hours and 98 hours a week each – as they do in this house – cost $328 a year to run. How accurate that is depends on the individual machines, but consider, a desktop with a 550 watt power supply is drawing those watts every hour it’s on whether you’re using it or not. We used to leave ours on 24/7, because computers like to be turned on. Saves the circuit boards heating & cooling which accelerates the eventual failure, but at what cost?? I know plenty of other computer geeks who do exactly the same. Just one of the things we all need to re-assess, but I digress. On a net feed-in tariff, the consumer can never really know for sure & certain whether they’re getting a value return, or being ripped off. Evidence the winter vacation example above. Any good you might do, can be so easily and covertly wiped out under the current treatment of PV generation in this country. Where’s the real benefit to you, the consumer? You’ll never know because you can’t track it.

So, I’d say this to Messrs Abbott and Rudd. Stop bullshitting the consumer, the ‘working family’, the taxpayer and voter. Cease and desist with puissant targets for pollution reduction and get serious about the business of addressing the planet’s environment, habitats, diminishing species and resources. Get serious about encouraging people – the small consumer, as the power retailers call us – to adopt technologies which will actually save not just money, but resources and toxic atmospheric outputs. Stop hiding behind false promises and faux concessions. Get serious about the issue of planetary degradation and stop playing politics with the future of our species. It’s the least you can do.