If you are fond of a country drive you may have noticed a contemporary icon is replacing the windmills that once dotted farmland. White tri-blade wind turbines, with their futuristic appearance and more than 100 metres tall, are evidence that times are changing. The decision by electricity consumers to go green is having an impact.
The bulk of electricity in Australia is called “black power” because of heavy carbon emissions that come from fossil fuels burnt to generate it. With 92 per cent of Victoria’s power coming from brown coal, and 4 per cent from gas, it is some of the country’s dirtiest. Only
4 per cent of Victoria’s power comes from green sources ... 2 per cent wind, 1 per cent hydro and 1 per cent solar.
If you want to play your part in reducing emissions, the first step is to become more energy efficient. To reduce your “carbon karma” you can pay a little bit more to buy renewable power generated by someone else, or take on the investment needed to generate it yourself.
Buying renewable power
Buying Green Power from your energy retailer is the quickest way to make a difference, for what might amount to $5 more a week for an average home. Green Power is a government brand that can only be used for electricity that is certified as being generated from sources that produce no net greenhouse gas emissions. If you want to switch to part or full Green Power, this can be done in minutes by ringing your electric company.
Generating your own
Though wind generation for most urban environments is not yet viable, solar technologies are becoming cheaper and more efficient. To reduce reliance on grid electricity and gas, you can install photovoltaic (PV) cells or a solar hot-water system in your home. With government rebates, the payback periods are significantly reduced, meaning the return on your investment could come within six to 10 years, depending on the circumstances.
The most common photovoltaic systems start with 1.5 kilowatt solar arrays, which in Melbourne’s sunlight may produce about 5.5kW/hours a day. An average household would need three times this to cover energy usage. Regardless of how many cells you install, on a winter evening, the power needed to run a home is “imported” from the grid. Ancillary power generated during the day can be “exported” to the grid. The more cells you have, the more likely you are to be a net exporter of renewable power to the grid.
To encourage more residents to install solar panels, the Victorian government offers a “feed-in tariff” that pays a higher rate for the renewable energy you generate than you would normally pay for grid power. Compared with the 19 cents per kW/h you may be paying for black power, the feed-in tariff is currently set to pay a minimum of 60 cents for every net kW/h you export.
Meters measure the electricity drawn from, as well as supplied to, the grid at half-hour intervals, and this tally is what the feed-in tariff is paid on. When the house is not using much power on sunny days, the feed-in tariff will allow you to potentially not only avoid paying power bills but reap a return on your PV investment.
Solar Hot Water
Conventional water-heating systems account for about 20 per cent of a household’s greenhouse gas emissions, so installing solar water heating will not only cut emissions but save up to 75 per cent of water heating costs.
Flat, roof-mounted panels, on the market for decades, have been superseded by more efficient technology that looks like a bank of glass cylinders. Even with this technology there will be days when there is not enough sun to provide for your needs. Thus solar systems are boosted by electrical or gas burners.
Tradeable Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) are issued for every kW/h of renewable electricity generated. The government requires electrical retailers to gain a percentage of their energy from renewable sources, which puts them in the market to purchase the REC you will be entitled to if you install a photovoltaic or solar hot-water system. RECs trade for about $35 each.
Following the federal government’s increase in the PV rebate, the program was closed due to oversubscription. The rebate system has since been replaced by a program that offers five times more RECs to than before.
The system uses a “solar credit”, which multiplies the number of RECs available for domestic PV systems, and from the start of next year these RECs will have a guaranteed price of $40 each. Under the new system, a 1.5kW PV installation may be eligible to sell RECs for a couple of thousand dollars less than the former maximum $8000 rebate. The cost of PV installations has dropped by up to 30 per cent, so the incentive is there, and further enhanced by the feed-in tariff.
Separate to the voluntary Green Power their customers may purchase, energy companies need to source enough renewable energy to meet their share of Australia’s mandatory renewable energy target, which is rising from its 5 per cent to 20 per cent by 2020. This creates competition for RECs and results in many companies offering enticing photovoltaic package deals.
For hot water, there are four different incentives available to Victorians replacing an existing system with a solar hot water system. These are listed under Resourcesmart at sustainability.vic.gov.au
With the energy companies’ growing need to buy RECs and a range of incentives from government, including the addition of the feed-in-tariff at the end of last year, it is a good time to reassess your energy carbon karma and think about what you might change.
Where to go for more information
General information: The federal government’s Living Greener website has good material on renewable energy: livinggreener.gov.au
Electricity and gas suppliers: This state government site a search by postcode for electricity and gas suppliers and gives tariff information: yourchoice.vic.gov.au
Photovoltaics: The Clean Energy Council has a consumer guide to buying household solar panels (photovoltaic panels) available from the resource centre of its website: cleanenergycouncil.org.au
Green Power: Sustainability Victoria has fact sheets for Green Power under the our program section of its site: sustainability.vic.gov.au
Renewable Energy Certificates: Office of the Renewable Energy Regulator has a range of fact sheets and a calculator to work out how many RECs you will be entitled to for photovoltaic and solar hot-water systems: orer.gov.au
Feed-in tariffs: A table, feed-in tariffs in Australia – at a glance is available from energymatters.com.au
Government rebates: Sustainability Victoria sustainability.vic.gov.au
Living Greener livinggreener.gov.au
Scott Willey is a sustainability writer, advocate, architect