Australian rooftop solar surged to record highs before lockdown

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From pv magazine Australia

This year could have smashed all previous records for rooftop solar installations. A mind-boggling 3 GW of residential and small-scale commercial rooftop PV could have been added to Australia’s grids in 2020. But it increasingly appears that despite an extremely strong start to the year, rooftop solar’s stellar trajectory is unlikely to hold as measures to tackle Covid-19 mount and consumer confidence takes a hit.

The small-scale technology certificate (STC) data compiled by Green Energy Markets (GEM) for March shows Australian households and businesses purchasing record volumes of rooftop solar systems in the month. The result builds of what had already been an incredibly strong start to year, with few signs that installation crews had taken much of summer break.

The GEM data shows around 31,500 sub-100 kW solar installations being carried out in the five big states, or at least registered with the Clean Energy Regulator, in March. In total, almost 250 MW of rooftop PV capacity was added in the month.

If the trend had continued, something approaching 3 GW of solar could have been installed on Australian rooftops in 2020. This would have been a big jump on the 2.13 GW installed in 2019.

“The STC registrations data up to March 31 doesn’t show any evidence of a slowdown,” said Green Energy Markets’ Director, Analysis and Advisory, Tristan Edis. “However, these are subject to lags of about three weeks between install date and registration of the STCs and then you could add further lags between the install date and when that system might have been sold to the customer,” Edis added.

In short, the STC data are unlikely to be showing any signs of the Covid-19 related shutdown currently underway in Australia – and the result may actually be biased by any slowdown, as installers catch up on paperwork and register installations as demand drops.

But there are signs that the rooftop solar market could show some resilience in the face of the massive economic upheaval currently being felt. “Many installers had a solid backlog of secured sales which will keep them busy for a few weeks to come,” said Edis.

Positive impacts

Rooftop PV could receive somewhat of a boost from the current crisis facing the wider economy. Solar installations can be carried out with limited face-to-face contact, and customer purchasing decisions could be positively impacted by people wishing to take control of their power bills, as uncertainty mounts.

“Battery interest is up,” said Edis, “people want to store up on more than just toilet paper in fear of pending Armageddon.”

Small business too could be incentivized by generous tax-based stimulus measures, such as the expanded criteria for an immediate tax write off on capital expenditures. Edis said he spoke to one installer who reported being flat out with the “instant tax write off” a major driver.

“Green Energy Markets’ analysis finds that food production and distribution, like supermarkets, cold storage, food manufacturing, animal husbandry such as piggeries and egg laying, is one the biggest markets for larger solar systems and so far Covid-19 panic buying should be helping their revenue and economic downturn shouldn’t blunt sales too much.”

Edis added that such businesses have “goldilocks conditions for solar” – being regular daytime electricity demand for things like refrigeration or heating and cooling, but insufficient demand to receive major discounts from electricity retailers.

Despite the record-breaking STC figures and reasons for some optimism in certain applications, there are many reasons to suggest that rooftop solar demand will not be spared the impact of Covid-19 and the necessary measures taken to prevent its spread. “Another installer I have spoken to has seen sales completely dive,” said Edis. “That installer is focussed on shopping centres and aged care, which are another key market segment for commercial solar.”