‘There will be more South Australias coming up’


When the South Australian government announced a new slate of regulations for rooftop solar installations and inverter requirements in August, it was met by some with indignant shrieks. The changes were apparently too quick, too brutal. Wilf Johnston, Enphase Energy’s General Manager for the Asia Pacific region, however, applauded the state for finally “calling a spade a spade” and addressing the looming dilemma.

Having ridden the Australian solar wave for well over a decade, from its early cowboy days to its arrival as a sanctified part of mainstream society, Johnston says something simply had to give. “There was going to have to be a concession by solar to play nicely on the grid,” he told pv magazine Australia.

Like SolarQuote’s founder Finn Peacock, Johnston believes the rest of Australia will have to learn a thing or two from the southern state. “I fully expect from what I’ve been reading that this trend will be echoed by other grids around the country over the next year or two because it’s the only way you can continue to integrate more and more solar onto the grid.”

“We need to move quick because at some point there will be more South Australia’s coming up. It will happen sooner than anybody thinks.”

No place for pessimism

Yet not even Australia’s notoriously rickety grid, which continues to be the industry’s top concern according to the Clean Energy Councils biannual surveys, will be enough to slow the darling of the suburbs – rooftop solar. When fronted with the question of how the expected drop in wholesale electricity prices will affect uptake, Johnston scoffs. It won’t be more than a blip on the radar, he says.

“What we’ve seen in the past is that [electricity] price increases are definitely a trigger for people to think more about solar, but prices decreasing by a couple of cents is not enough for people to stop thinking about it.”

Unlike Tristan Edis’ decidedly less rosy prediction that wholesale electricity prices falling will see a corresponding drop in rooftop installations, Johnston is fairly certain it won’t be enough to stop the momentum that has only grown in the segment since 2017.

“The awareness [around solar] ratchets up with every increase in electricity prices, but it never really ratchets down.”

“A key thing that is quite unique to Australia versus other markets is the fact that solar is very mainstream. It’s not a niche purchase, it’s not even a particularly an environmental purchase. It’s just something you do if you want to save some money and manage your house effectively.”

Battery storage proposition still unconvincing for Aussies

Unlike rooftop solar, battery storage is yet to “make it” down under. Uptake has largely flatlined, despite being initially met with great enthusiasm. “I think it’s fairly safe to say that none of the storage forecasts that have been released over the past five years have been anywhere close to accurate to what’s ended up happening.”

Battery storage is yet to find its feet here, according to Johnston, because the magic formula of how to propose, pitch and market it to Australian consumers continues to escape the industry. “I don’t think anyone has quite figured out the best way to do it yet.”

“It’s hard to put the same numbers on [storage] that you’re used to putting onto solar.” Johnston thinks playing the numbers game and focussing on the economics is simply not the right route. “It’s almost too difficult to go mass market with that kind of approach. I think we need another angle.”

After this year’s Black Summer, Johnston, like installer Rowland Lawrence, says there was an upswing in interest in storage. The activity, marketing and conversations which should have happened following the disaster though were overshadowed by the pandemic. “It definitely led to a bit of a spike earlier this year following the bushfires, but unfortunately that got hidden or obfuscated by the Covid fog.”

The US market has had success pitching battery storage as a way to avoid blackouts and build energy resilience, especially in disaster prone regions. This is one way Johnston thinks the industry could approach Australian customers. The other is better communicating it as a way to time shift solar so it can be used when it’s needed, rather than when it’s generated.

“I think the interesting thing moving forward is how good we get at explaining the value of storage and pushing it to something that is a little more mainstream.”

Recent state storage subsidy schemes could change things but whether it’s enough to move the market, Johnston says, is a matter of “watch and wait.”

The conversation the Australian solar industry doesn’t want to have

Now rooftop solar has well and truly solidified its position in Australia, Johnston believes the industry needs to stop being so skittish about the issue of safety. “I think there is concern the moment anything negative is discussed relating to solar, suddenly everyone is going to stop doing solar,” he told pv magazine Australia. “Five, ten years ago – sure, people were a bit jumpy. But we’ve gone past that.”

One aspect of the conversation that has been especially overlooked, he says, is how Australia’s world leading rooftop solar penetration might affect tradespeople and those workings on houses.

“Once you have 30% plus of houses with solar, anyone working on that house – whether it’s a solar electrician or a normal electrician or a plumber or anyone – they need to be able to navigate around fairly high DC voltages on the roof safely.”

The AS/NZ 5033 standard which is currently under discussion will address some of those concerns, but there needs to be more robust and continual discussion, the general manager says. Especially given the country’s rooftop solar systems are getting bigger, meaning there’s more power kicking around on household roofs.

“People need to get comfortable with the fact solar is mainstream and by and large it works very safely but it could be better.”

Johnston pointed to the example of cars – “every time there’s a car crash, people don’t stop buying cars they look at how to make them safer.”

“It a matter of being a little more comfortable with having that discussion – getting the numbers, getting the stats and not being concerned that the industry is going to shut down tomorrow because of it. I think if anything, it will enable [solar] to be stronger and better and carry on.”

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