Protecting Solar Citizens in South Australia 

Solar Power

A guest post by our colleague Sharon Ede.

The Total Environment Centre and Solar Citizens are appealing to a Federal Court to defend a decision by the Australian Energy Regulator that prevents South Australian Power Networks, the electricity distribution network provider for SA, from slapping a $100 solar tariff on households with solar panels.South Australian households have been faced with huge increases in electricity costs since privatisation in 1999, and many households have embraced renewable energy to beat rising prices. South Australia has almost 200,000 solar households, in a state of just over 1.5 million people. Meanwhile, electricity networks in Australia have arguably over-invested in infrastructure, with $45 billion spent on new poles and wires in the last five years.

On 9 December 2015, the following motion was moved and spoken to in the Legislative Council of South Australia by Mark Parnell, MLC, Parliamentary Leader of the South Australian Greens.

  1. That this council congratulates Solar Citizens on its campaign to protect households with solar panels from discriminatory pricing structures  sought to be imposed by power utility; and
  2. Calls on the state government to ensure that South Australians who embrace solar power will not be unfairly treated for doing their bit for the environment.

The Hon. M.C. PARNELL: Solar Citizens is an independent, non-profit, community-based organisation working to protect and grow solar power in Australia. With chapters across Australia, it is becoming one of the most effective and influential consumer organisations in this nation. In South Australia, one in four households now have rooftop solar and the power generated from these solar households currently meets about 5 per cent of South Australia’s total energy demand.

However, that is just the tip of the iceberg because the 190,000 solar households in South Australia producing 570 megawatts of rooftop solar power will, over coming years, be eclipsed by a massive boom in the solar industry. The Australian Energy Market Operator has said that this solar capacity could rise fivefold over the next two decades, meaning that rooftop solar could meet all of the state’s demand on some days within a decade. By 2034-35, along with large-scale renewables such as wind energy and solar PV, renewables collectively could be providing the equivalent of all of the state’s power needs.

So despite the environmental good that these solar owners are doing by reducing greenhouse emissions, earlier this year SA Power Networks applied to the Australian Energy Regulator to implement a residential solar tariff. This new tariff would end up costing solar households an extra $100 more in network charges per year, and would subsequently act as a disincentive for people to install solar PV on their properties.

However, the Solar Citizens stood up against this discriminatory proposal from SA Power Networks, and they rallied community support by collecting nearly 3,000 signatures and letterboxing many solar households. They sent a clear message to the Australian Energy Regulator to reject SA Power Networks’ residential solar tariff, which attacks those who are helping environment.

I would like to refer to an article that was published in the journal Renew Economy back on 14 August under the heading ‘SA Power Networks fights to charge solar homes $100 per year more for the grid’. The article, by Sophie Vorrath, includes the following:

Solar Citizens national director Claire O’Rourke, says that the move to overturn the AER’s decision on the special solar fee was just the latest attempt by SAPN to discriminate against solar homeowners.  ‘This is a brazen money grab from SA Power Networks who want to target solar homeowners, and are again trying to push through unfair fees onto the solar community by any means possible,’ O’Rourke said…

‘When SA Power Networks first proposed these new taxes on solar homeowners there was widespread community outrage. South Australians sent a clear message that they would not accept this attack on solar homeowners and the AER listened and rejected the proposed fees. It’s time for SA Power Networks to listen too, and to stop trying to penalise those in the community who are embracing renewable energy.’

‘SA Power Networks can either attack or embrace the community energy revolution. This latest move indicates they intend to undermine the efforts of thousands of South Australians who have chosen to take control of their electricity bills by making the switch to solar…This is an unacceptable move by SA Power Networks and we call on them to put a stop to this witch-hunt,’ said Ms O’Rourke.

The Solar Citizens’ campaign was successful, as I have alluded to, and on 29 October this year the Australian Energy Regulator handed down its final decision, where it rejected SA Power Networks’ unfair tariff.

However, it is not over yet. SA Power Networks has now applied for a judicial review in the Federal Court of the Australian Energy Regulator’s decision. I am very pleased to say that a number of consumer groups have now joined that court case, in particular, the Total Environment Centre and also Solar Citizens. Another article from the Renew Economy news service, this one by Giles Parkinson on 16 November this year, said:

Consumer groups have joined a court fight against South Australia’s main utility over a proposal to slap increased network charges on households with rooftop solar. The consumer groups see it as a crucial line in the sand to stop other utilities from following suit, and slapping more charges on 1.4 million solar households across the country.

I mentioned that one of the groups involved in the court case was the Total Environment Centre. Their spokesperson, Mark Byrne (a former South Australian, if I am not mistaken), made the point that if SA Power Networks succeeds in introducing the charge, other network operators around the country would follow. To quote Mr Byrne:

We consider it likely that if SA Power Networks is successful in its appeal, other networks around Australia will seek to introduce similarly discriminatory tariffs on solar customers, increasing their costs and slowing the introduction of a decentralised and renewable energy-based electricity system.

So, the case now includes the Total Environment Centre and Solar Citizens.  Solar Citizens has 90,000 members, so they are a big organisation, and they are funded by Energy Consumers Australia. I am delighted that their application to join the SA Power Networks court proceedings was approved back in mid-November.

It would be nice if that were the end of it, but clearly it is not. SA Power Networks have a number of other tricks up their sleeve, where they are trying to discriminate against solar customers, and in particular with their current ploy of moving customers onto so-called demand tariffs. Demand tariffs are an interesting beast that have a lot of merit, but they are also being used by electricity utilities to discriminate against solar.

In fact, I convened a round table here in Parliament House a few months ago with a number of small businesses, along with the Small Business Commissioner, to try to work out whether any action could be taken to prevent these small businesses being pushed onto a demand tariff, which effectively meant that if they installed solar panels it cost them more, which made no sense at all. People put solar panels on to reduce their demand for electricity from the grid and thereby reduce their costs; nevertheless, demand tariffs can act in a perverse way.

The introduction of demand tariffs by SA Power Networks would reduce the uptake of solar power in South Australia by about 50 per cent in coming years, although perversely it could accelerate the uptake of battery storage and thereby the disconnection of many customers from the grid altogether. The Total Environment Centre supports demand tariffs, but they argue that they should be properly structured. They prefer tariffs that are based on critical peak use, meaning that tariffs should be structured according to network peaks rather than individual consumer peaks, which may be at different times.

A good example is one group (I think it was a tennis club) that came to see me. The one day of the year that they used a lot of electricity was the day of their Christmas party. They had all the fridges running, they had all the lights on and probably the air conditioners because it was summer. That was the yardstick against which their tariffs were set. Their tariff was set as if they used that amount of electricity for the entire year; in other words, SA Power Networks used the peak and then made that effectively the price.

The national director of Solar Citizens, Claire O’Rourke, said that the move by SA Power Networks was an attempt by SA Power Networks to ‘gouge’ solar homeowners, and to quote her:

[They] are again trying to push through unfair fees onto the solar community by any means possible.

1 Comment Protecting Solar Citizens in South Australia 

  1. AvatarKeith

    The message being sent out is fossil fuels cannot compete, hence what we are seeing in Australia and many other places.

    They should establish their own community owned and controlled local grids, into which feed renewables guaranteed a fair price, consumers pay a fair price, surplus generation fed to other local grids, any profit ploughed back into the local grid or used to fund community projects.

    They should also register to receive SolarCoins.

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