Rooftop solar systems in Australia: Can we trust the Clean Energy Regulator data?

Yesterday Renew Economy released (yet another) news article spruiking the success of rooftop solar in Australia.  As an avid supporter of domestic solar energy I am always thrilled to hear when Australia has met a new milestone.  As of this month, according to the Commonwealth Government’s Clean Energy Regulator, Australia has passed the 4.5GW mark of installed small-scale solar energy.  And also, of course, there’s the fanfare about the 2.5 million homes with solar systems (electricity and hot water) installed.

I used to repeat these claims as readily as people at Renew Economy and Climate Spectator, but lately I’ve become concerned about the accuracy of these figures.

(Before I start, a note on how this data is collected.  Australia’s legislated Renewable Energy Target allows people installing small-scale renewable energy systems to generate ‘certificates’ for every 1 MWh of electricity (or equivalent) likely to be generated over the 15 year life of a solar system.  Data on the month, postcode area, capacity (in kW) and number of systems installed, based on people who submit applications to generate certificates, is released by the Clean Energy Regulator.)

It all started when I was interviewing domestic solar energy consumers and installers for my research.  Particularly in regional areas the number of faulty systems being installed was surprisingly high.  Most solar installers suggested that when people encountered a problem with their system they chose to purchase a whole new system as opposed to having their system fixed.  There were several reasons for this – original warranties had expired or were no longer valid as initial installers had filed for bankruptcy or disappeared; panels were of different wattage or quality or there were general concerns about their incompatibility with new panels; panels had dropped in price to the point that purchasing a new system was cheaper than having an old system fixed.  While not accessible on the Clean Energy Regulator website, forum responses also indicated that it’s standard practice to generate new certificates for systems that are being replaced under warranty.  So a lot of these systems that we talk about as ‘being on rooftops’ may now be in garbage tips. 

Then there’s the question of whether all the system installations recorded on the Clean Energy Regulator website are new installations.  While systems have to be ‘less than 12 months old’ to register for financial benefit under the Renewable Energy Target, as far as I can tell all this means is that people have to get their paperwork in within 12 months of installing new solar panels on a system where every portion of the system meets current technical requirements.  What this means is that people can be installing system upgrades and these could be counted as new systems.  I can’t find anything on the Clean Energy Regulator that excludes upgrades or ‘expansions’ to systems, and online forums seem to suggest that people are accessing rebates for expansions.

Then there’s the age of the data itself.  The data takes account of any system that has received financial benefit under an Australian scheme.  The first scheme was initiated in 2001.  While I have heard anecdotal evidence that early systems were of a higher quality than later systems, I’m pretty sure that not all of those systems going back 15 years are still functional!

Finally there’s the tendency for the media to confuse ‘small-scale system’ with ‘household system’.  In fact, the data includes ANY small-scale system to be installed, including on commercial premises.  So claims of ‘x number solar homes’ are likely to be exaggerated – particularly when you consider the greater financial benefits for commercial buildings operational during the day and with higher tariffs compared with householders at work during the day on lower tariffs.

All the Clean Energy Regulator data really tells us is when (by month) and where (by postcode area) solar capacity is installed.  It’s a great resource, but it doesn’t tell us whether this is ‘new’ capacity or whether it’s replacing redundant or expanding existing installations.  It doesn’t tell us how much capacity is still on rooftops.  And it definitely doesn’t confidently tell us how many ‘homes’ have installed solar energy.  We might be able to confidently say that 4.5GW of capacity HAS BEEN INSTALLED over the last 15 years, but it’s definitely not 4.5GW installed currently. 

For how much longer will be talking about the Clean Energy Regulator data like it’s current and reliable?

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