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SA's free solar not what it seems

  • 15 February 2018


It sounded like the ultimate election sweetener. Six weeks out from polling day, South Australian Labor Premier Jay Weatherill announced a plan to install free solar and Tesla batteries on 50,000 homes.

Except it's not quite that simple. Seduced by the chance to publish more clickbait about billionaire Tesla chief Elon Musk, the media misrepresented the details: the panels aren't really free, most of the funding won't come from government, it's mainly for social housing, and it'll have bugger all effect on who gets elected anyway.

What the media did get right was swooning over the sheer scale of the thing. It really is gigantic. If completed in full with 50,000 homes, the virtual power plant will be 50 times larger than its closest rival, AGL's proposal for 1000 connected household batteries in Adelaide.

So what is a virtual power plant? In this case, it's essentially a massive solar farm and battery, but it's spread across tens of thousands of homes instead of in the one location. Each home would be installed with a 5 kW solar system and a 13.5 kWh Powerwall 2 Tesla battery. Combined with smart meter technology and a computer system to control the storage, use and transfer of power, this network could provide 250 megawatts of generation capacity.

Ah, but here's the catch — Tesla and a yet-to-be-appointed electricity retailer would own the power and sell it back to the household at a discounted rate. As the ABC explained: 'In effect, the householder is simply leasing Tesla and another power company some spare roof space and garage space in return for a discount on their power bills.'

Sounds less appealing? Not at all! This is actually fantastic, because it opens up the benefits of solar and batteries to households that couldn't otherwise afford the upfront costs. That's why half of the homes to get the solar and batteries will be Housing Trust properties owned by the South Australian government.

Rather than viewing this scheme as some kind of election giveaway, it's more accurate to see it as pitch for 'energy fairness'. It echoes other social equity clean energy projects, like Victoria's Solar Savers, which provides pensioners with 'free' solar panels to be paid off over time through council rates.


"Whichever party wins the state election on 17 March could claim a mandate for its energy plan. But the reality is the result might have nothing to do with any of these efforts