Solar power saves the day during Australia's record heatwave


While tennis players have wilted and bush fires have raged, solar power systems in Australia have come to the fore this week as the nation battles with the effects of the latest debilitating heatwave.

Temperatures across many parts of the country – including Melbourne, where the Australian Open is being held – have soared past 40C for the last few days, melting plastic bottles where they stand and proving once and for all that the sun's heat can, in fact, fry eggs cracked on to flat metal surfaces.

But it is Australia’s coal-fired power plants that have really been feeling the strain. As the middle of the day sees peak demand for power-hungry air conditioning units, the country’s traditional power supplies have had that demand alleviated by solar power systems.

Throughout the country, both rooftop and ground-mounted solar installations have upped their share of power use and generation, helping to rein in wholesale pricing and reduce the number of power outages.

At the midday peak this Wednesday, findings from the Australian Solar Council revealed that the state of South Australia drew 9.41% of its energy needs from solar systems. That figure was 9.13% for Western Australia, 8.64% for Queensland, 3.59% for New South Wales and 2.8% for Victoria.

"As a community we should be congratulating those people who have made a significant personal investment in installing solar PV, which is now paying dividends for the entire community," said the CEO of the Australian Solar Council, John Grimes. "Because solar PV produces electricity where it is used and does not need vast network infrastructure, the power that is produced is all being used to best effect, which adds up to a big saving for solar."

Grimes added that he expects recent events will persuade more Australians to invest in solar solutions as the country’s “once-in-a-lifetime” heatwaves become more commonplace. "Solar is the perfect solution to these conditions, and we expect more Australians to want to take control of their own energy future."

The Australian Solar Council’s stance, however, is at odds with the Energy Supply Association of Australia (ESAA), which argues that homeowners with rooftop solar panels installed avoid high network charges that are levied evenly across units of power used, while at the same time demand just as much peak power demand as non-solar customers. "Households with solar end up paying less for the network because they generate some of their own electricity and import less from the grid," said an ESAA discussion paper on the issue of solar costs. "But solar households can be among the biggest users of the networks, because they both import and export electricity at different times of the day.

"Hence, most solar households end up paying only a fraction of their fair share of the cost of maintaining the network."

This claim has since been challenged by the Australian PV network, which ran a study that concluded solar panels do in fact reduce the cross subsidy, finding that no matter to what extent solar operates during peak demand times, it still plays its part in reducing the overall level of demand at any given time.

Australia’s energy sector is calling for a broad-brush tariff reform to ensure all customers pay a fair share. Such reform is supported by the Solar PV institute of Australia, but Dr. Robert Passey has stressed that such reform should be "technology agnostic", and not specifically target solar, which late last year reached 3 GW installed nationwide.

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