On the 8th of August 2013, the Western Australian Government handed down a tough budget.
Although Western Australia should be one of the worlds wealthiest State's due to it's massive endowment of minerals, the government somehow has a budget black hole. It was therefore no surprise to see some pretty deep cuts being made in Australia's biggest state (2,529,875 km2) but it was a huge surprise to see solar homeowners targeted.
Incredibly, the States Premier threw the budgetary hatchet at what he mistakenly thought were a small an ineffectual bunch of voters. The State had previously had an export tariff (aka, feed-in tarriff) of AUD $0.40c kWh in place, wound back in 2011 to keep pace with the rapidly falling cost - and rapidly rising popularity of PV in Australia. At the time, Premier Barnett's handling of the change came under fire, more for a lack of finesse and courtesy, than anything else.
Last week however, he spontaneously announced that as part of the fiscal adjustment plan, the State had decided to RETROSPECTIVELY change the AUD $0.40c kWh, commitment, taking away future income streams from solar owners. Purportedly to save $51M over the next 4 years, the Premier misjudged the investments made, the voter backlash and the quantum of homeowners involved.
He sure got this one wrong. Within minutes, an army of volunteers, analysts, solar advocates and industry associations were swarming on the issue.
Amongst other things, we quickly realised that his actions would affect close to 150,000 voters who had collectively invested almost UAD $500M of their own money installing solar based on a promise from the Government. We calculated that in some cases, homeowners could be out of pocket by up to $800 per year, not an insignificant sum particularly given that most solar uptake is by working class and middle income Australians. Most importantly, with a looming Federal election, we established that the States Liberal Government held several important - and marginal - seats that were far more richly endowed with solar systems than coal or iron ore.
Social media was awash with lines like "Q: How many solar voters does it take to change a seat? A: In WA's Hasluck, only 2.9%" This equated to a mere 500 votes and we established that more than 8,704 homes were in this electorate. We found another 13 electoral seats which were marginal or tight with high PV uptake, and made the case clear with a co-ordinated and effective campaign. Our primary consumer advocacy group (Solar Citizens) had 8,000 signatures on a petition within 3 days.
Backbenchers were threatening to cross the floor based on the decisions immorality. Lawyers were citing a "dogs breakfast" of court cases and cross litigation. Electoral offices were inundated with irate homeowners.
This morning in Western Australian parliament, the Premier reversed his decision, a mere 4 days after announcing it.
There are several important lessons in this result.
However, underlying all of this and perhaps most importantly, it shows that the old world order of government's making money off perpetual growth in energy sales may be showing cracks. This important decision may well be a turning point in the democratisation of energy in Australia.
No matter what the result in our upcoming (September 7th) Federal election one thing is for sure; no politician in their right mind will under-estimate the voting power or mobilisation potential of solar voters in Australia.
With enormous pressure on Renewables support in Australia, this decision was crucial to demonstrate that the community wants solar and the hope is that whoever takes power will acknowledge this fact with just a little more seriousness, and get on with the job over overhauling our energy sector.
The information and views expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author and not necessarily those of RenewableEnergyWorld.com or the companies that advertise on this Web site and other publications. This blog was posted directly by the author and was not reviewed for accuracy, spelling or grammar.