Watching energy efficiency potential slip away

Alan Pears

Energy efficiency is still being overlooked as a primary method of greenhouse gas reductions, explains Alan Pears.

A recently released International Energy Agency study found that 2010 public expenditure on energy efficiency in Australia was the lowest of a sample of 18 countries. How can we afford not to invest in the most cost-effective abatement option that also enhances competitiveness? Look at the lost opportunities.

In 2010 the star rating scales for several appliances were toughened­—but there was no public information campaign about the good news that appliances had improved efficiency beyond the existing scales. And first home buyer schemes continue to ignore the potential to target them towards smaller, more energy-efficient homes and installation of on-site renewables.

As we move towards the transition to digital TV, millions of old TVs are being discarded, and valuable resources lost, because governments have largely failed to establish large-scale recycling schemes. Government has run frequent TV advertisements warning people to get ready, yet they make no mention of the importance of choosing an energy efficient set-top box or new TV.

Since TV energy labelling was introduced in late 2009, a new generation of very efficient 7- to 8-star TVs has appeared. Not only are these more efficient than older flat screen units, but they are also more efficient than traditional cathode ray tube (CRT) TVs. But the old, inefficient flat screen products are still on the market, so informed choice of high efficiency products is not guaranteed.

This demonstrates how fragmented government action misses opportunities to capture energy efficiency potential and leaves us with millions of energy wasting items of equipment. What a lost opportunity.

In my last column I described my bemusement at the mixed signals coming from governments about sustainable energy policy. I think it’s now clear: sustainable energy policy is a low priority for governments. At the national level, the twin forces of the political need to reach budget surplus by 2012-13, combined with the ideological agenda that a carbon price will fix everything, means support for sustainable energy is expendable. In some states, the combination of climate scepticism, environmental politics and efforts to make budget savings have led to cutbacks, and have fuelled public attacks, presumably to justify reduced assistance to sustainable energy. In NSW the government has even attempted to apply retrospective change to PV legislation—setting a dangerous precedent. Recent state and commonwealth budget statements have confirmed serious cutbacks. Things are looking bleak.

Are PVs high cost abatement?

Recently we have seen intensive attacks on subsidies for PVs as ‘middle class welfare’ and ‘high cost abatement’. There’s no doubt policymakers haven’t done well on PV policy. But it has worked both ways. The industry’s development has been hampered by ‘stop-start’ policy. Most states have chosen the more complex and less attractive net feed-in tariff over a gross feed-in tariff. On the other hand, many of the subsidies have been very generous.

But we need to put this into context. Governments have chosen to continue poorly targeted first home buyers grants that drive up house prices and reward those who build large inefficient homes as well as those who want modest sustainable homes. Industries such as car manufacturers and aluminium smelters have been treated generously. We also need to remember that the Howard government introduced, then doubled PV rebates as a blatant vote chasing strategy. Labor matched them as an election commitment. Similarly, states introduced feed-in tariffs to win votes.

More recently, the PV rebate cost was shifted from consolidated revenue to a charge on energy retailers—presumably to make it easier to meet the government’s deficit reduction target. Now governments have been caught as energy prices skyrocket, largely because of failure to drive energy efficiency and distributed generation by the flawed energy market structure.

So PV policy can hardly be described as well planned and consistent.

However, the positive outcome of this ad-hoc shambles has been a transformation of the PV industry. It is now geared to deliver large-scale roll-out, while prices have come down significantly. Part of this is due to the high Australian dollar, but sales and installation have been streamlined and we have ridden the dramatic economies of scale of accelerating global production.

Government now faces a dilemma. If it cuts the PV subsidies, demand may crash and it will be seen as anti-renewables. At the same time, it will be undermining adoption of a very popular emission abatement technology. But if it keeps subsidies, what level of support is needed to keep demand high enough to build this important industry? Good question.

According to my calculations, an unsubsidised 1.5kW PV system is now close to being a zero or negative cost abatement option for a household if it can be financed at mortgage interest rates and its output either replaces daytime electricity (on a time of use tariff) or is paid for exports at that rate. With predicted increases in electricity prices, the financial case looks good.

But this doesn’t mean finance at this interest rate will be available, or that people will act ‘rationally’ and install them without subsidies. This is no different from the behaviour of industry, who had to be forced by legislation to even look for very cost-effective energy efficiency savings that deliver rates of return of 20-50% per annum or better. We are not very rational about future savings.

One option would be to mandate PV installation, for example on larger new homes and new apartment buildings. People building large homes are clearly not struggling to get a modest roof over their heads, and over the long term, it is a good investment for them. For apartments, the split incentive problem due to the disconnect between developer and occupant is a serious market failure.

A bank that looks rationally at the economics of PV would see that its revenue will cover any additional repayments, so it actually enhances the home buyer’s capacity to repay the mortgage. And it provides insurance against future energy price increases. So government could encourage or require banks to offer ‘bonus’ finance to cover a PV system on any new mortgage.

Incentives or subsidies could also be focused on installations in areas where electricity networks are under pressure, where powerline losses are high and where solar radiation is highest. There is also a case for low-income households to be entitled to installation of PV, with repayments delivered via a charge on council rates: this would help insulate them from increasing energy prices.

There are lots of creative policy options to take PV away from being a political football. Let’s hope government has enough imagination to find a constructive path forward instead of undermining the future of the PV industry.

Nuclear backtracking

The recent Japanese nuclear crisis has set back the plans of the nuclear industry to expand. We have seen again how a single nuclear accident can force the evacuation of large areas of valuable land for many years, while causing massive short term economic and social dislocation. Surely nuclear generators should be required to carry insurance against such an event? Of course, if they did, nuclear energy would be much more expensive and would simply fade away. Interesting, then, to see the Japanese government providing assistance to the power company that owns Fukushima.

Alan Pears has worked in the energy efficiency field for over twenty years as an engineer and educator. He is Adjunct Professor at RMIT University and is co-director of environmental consultancy Sustainable Solutions.

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