Hundreds protest against Australian solar tariff reductions

More than 1,000 people gathered at Customs House in the city of Sydney to voice their opposition to the reduction, with the size of the crowd forcing the protest to spill onto surrounding streets. There was also another smaller event taking place in the country town of Lismore, where a reported 200 people marched on the offices of Coalition MP Thomas George.

For a country that doesn’t protest too largely or too regularly, the gatherings have deservedly made headlines. The meetings were organized after a spate of decisions by the new government were made due to a huge rethink of the budget set aside for the solar industry.

About 120,000 photovoltaic-linked households in the state could lose thousands of dollars each as a result of the move, with many people saying that they had budgeted on the retention of the 60 cent rate and are now worried they will end up losing money on their panels, even though they are feeding power back into the energy grid.

If the NSW solar feed-in tariff is cut from 60c/kWh to 40c/kWh, it will represent a loss of $2,192 (€1633) over the next five years for owners of 1.5kW (6kWh/day average) solar generation systems.

The new Premier Barry O’Farrell promised before the election that the state government had penned a five-year agreement for pre-existing contracts to be paid at the original mark of 60 cents per kilowatt-hour until July 1, 2016. However the move to drop the tariff on the pre-contracts obviously goes against this and has angered many in the industry.

Chris Hartcher, the NSW Minister for Resources, said that this unpopular move was a result of the scheme putting costs on taxpayers after the reported $759 million (€564 million) budget blow-out.

"The NSW Government is committed to renewable energy but our focus will be sensible, sustained and affordable progress," Hartcher told the media. He also confirmed about 400,000 people are still waiting for their panels to be connected or have applications still pending.

The frustrated protesters waved banners reading "Chris Hartcher equals Tariff snatcher" and "The future is solar", while Solar Panel owner and former Australian of the Year candidate John Dee told the gathered crowd that he believed it would be a breach of contract by the government.

"We made a business decision and we based it on a government guarantee," Dee said. "The O’Farrell government wants to reach back and tear up those contracts."

The 33 percent drop in the tariff has made solar companies fearful about power pricing and job cuts, as well as the impact the move will have on the nation’s wider renewable energy plans.

The major issue that the industry faces now in Australia is finding stability so that a future can be planned regardless of what feed-in tariffs actually are. At the moment, the up and down nature of government legislation is only acting to a deterrent to many, which has the potential to cause a major drop in investment and usage. The former government was already forced to drop the tariff for new installations last October after it was costing more than expected.

Reaction and possible legal action

John Kaye, a Greens MP in NSW, has called the decision unfair and will fight the legislation.

"It will squander investment in renewable energy," Kaye told reporters on Wednesday. "It’s a semi-illegal move."

The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) has also announced it has engaged Piper Alderman Lawyers to investigate the legality of the State Government’s retrospective legislation and peremptory closure of the program.

The Australian Solar Energy Society (AuSES) has released details of what it says are promises broken by the Coalition government in relation to the Solar Bonus Scheme, with CEO John Grimes being particularly critical of the decision.

"My focus is really about stopping it. I would prefer that there is no class action that would take years and the industry would be dead. But if that is what we have to look at we will," Grimes told the Australian Associated Press.

The host of a popular nightly radio show on the station 2GB in Sydney took to Twitter to reflect on the animosity shown by many of the callers to whom he spoke after the rally. "Gawd … those who put in solar panels in NSW are hot hot," said host Ross Greenwood on his account.