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Keeping Solar FiT

I’m Pauline and I volunteer for Solar Citizens. After the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) proposed to cut the benchmark solar feed-in tariff (FiT) in NSW from 11.9-15c/kWh to 7.5c/kWh, the Sydney Solar Citizens group sprung into action to get solar owners a fair go.

With IPART considering slashing the solar feed-in tariff, it’s clear that solar owners and supporters aren’t being listened to. Solar owners are tired of doing the legwork and not seeing any gains. Why should solar households be punished for lowering wholesale power prices and reducing peak demand with their clean power? To make sure that our message was cutting across, we decided to make some noise outside of the NSW Parliament House.

Solar citizens turned out in front of Parliament House bright and early on Tuesday morning to say enough is enough: it’s time to lift the feed-in tariff, not reduce it! The Keep Solar FiT stunt involved performing an aerobics routine in bright, yellow sweatbands and tracksuits to the motivational beat ‘Walking on Sunshine’.

Choreographed by Kristy, the NSW Community Organiser, the dance movements and gym attire were definitely eye-catching. Pumping dumbbells and barbells emphasised how solar owners and supporters are doing the heavy lifting and reducing the cost of electricity for everyone.

To see everyone get involved in the theme of the stunt made getting up early in the cold morning totally worth it. The energy generated from all the volunteers was infectious and actually made you want to do a couple lunges and bicep curls. With all the flexing and ‘blue steel’ looks, solar power has never looked better.

Tamara Smith, the Greens Member for Ballina, and Adam Searle, the NSW Shadow Energy Minister, also came along. Even though they themselves didn’t wear tracksuits, they both demonstrated their support for a fair feed-in tariff. The Greens also took the opportunity to announce their intention to introduce a Private Member’s Bill to mandate a minimum fair price for solar.

With 12,107 signatures on our Fair Price for Solar petition, and the overwhelming benefits of solar power for energy savings, health and the environment, it’s time for the NSW Government to recognise solar owners for their heavy lifting and mandate a minimum fair price for power exported to the grid.

Want to know more about the action? Watch our video here.

Solar Citizens welcomes new National Director

We’re excited to report that Solar Citizens has a new National Director!

Joseph Scales has been appointed by the Solar Citizens board as our new National Director and will be starting with us at the end of April.

Joseph has been a champion in the union movement for a just transition for coal communities. He was most recently the Secretary of the South Australia and Northern Territory branch of the Australian Services Union (ASU) since 2013, where he led the ASU work on the Repower Port Augusta campaign. ASU members were directly affected by the crisis of a lack of transition strategy in Port Augusta with the sudden closure of the town's coal-fired power station, and so the campaign pushed to have one of the world’s biggest solar thermal plants with storage built there.

Joseph has also been a long time campaigner for LGBTIQ rights, including for the reform of parenting rights in South Australia, through to marriage equality, including being a YES Equality Campaign senior staffer in the successful 2017 postal survey and legislative reform.

Joseph has many other strings to his bow, and will add enormous value to our small but mighty organisation. He's passionate about solar and renewable energy, and is looking forward to joining all of us from Monday 30th April campaigning for a sun-powered future for Australia.

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South Australian Renewable Energy Election Guide

On March 17, South Australians will go to the polls.

South Australia leads the world in renewable energy, but South Australians are still being ripped off by big power companies. That’s why the next state government can’t afford to rest on South Australia’s renewable energy laurels and must double down on investing in new renewable energy with storage.

Solar Citizens has surveyed and spoken to a range of parties and their leaders contesting the state election about their policies. Below we outline where the parties stand, in no particular order, on a range of key renewable energy issues.

Increasing South Australia’s Renewable Energy Target

South Australia’s Renewable Energy Target sends an important message to the community and to industry that South Australia embraces a renewable future. It’s also important that the target is backed up by targeted funding and support for key renewable and storage projects to manage the transition. The Federal Government and big power companies have constantly attacked South Australia’s existing 50% renewable target because they are worried South Australia will show the rest of the country what is possible.

Both the Greens and Labor have committed to increasing South Australia’s Renewable Energy Target.

The Greens have a 100% renewable energy target by 2025.

Labor have announced a 75% renewable energy target by 2025. Labor also announced Australia’s first storage target of 25% of South Australia’s peak demand (750MW).

SA-BEST have committed to maintaining South Australia’s existing renewable target of 50% by 2025 and are open to supporting an increased target.

The Liberals have pledged that they will scrap South Australia’s target in favour of a national target.

Invest in Renewable Energy and Storage

Backing up renewable energy targets with targeted funds to support building the right combination of renewable energy and storage is a key recommendation of Solar Citizens’ Repowering South Australia report. Making these investments brings online new technologies that will help lower costs and make South Australia less reliant on our expensive gas power stations.

Here’s what the parties have committed to:

Labor established while in government a $150 million renewable technology fund which has funded multiple projects: including, the world’s biggest virtual power plant using 50,000 household solar and battery systems, 25,000 of which are housing trust homes; grid scale battery storage; pumped hydro and renewable hydrogen. On top of the existing Renewable Technology Fund, Labor have committed to:

  • A $100 million no interest loan scheme for household solar and batteries.
  • Providing an extra $20 million to the Renewable Technology Fund to support reaching Labor’s renewable storage target.

The Greens have supported redirecting funds currently used for gas exploration into renewable energy.

The Liberals have committed to supporting existing solar households to install battery storage with a $100 million battery storage fund. A further $50 million has been pledged to support grid scale storage.

SA-Best have not made any announcement regarding the investment of government money into renewable energy and storage, but have pledged to use the establishment of a government backed non-profit retailer to underwrite a new dispatchable 150MW renewable power station with storage.

Make Sure All South Australians Can Access The Benefits of Affordable, Renewable Energy

Ensuring all South Australians benefit from the transition to renewable energy is a key issue for Solar Citizens. In our Repowering South Australia report, we outlined priority policies including:

  • A government owned, non-profit retailer for South Australians on low-incomes.
  • Working with Indigenous communities to fund and collaboratively design an Aboriginal Communities Clean Power Program
  • Growing a vibrant community energy sector through a Smart Energy Communities program.

Other important areas include targeted programs to support people who are renting access the benefits of solar.

Here’s what the parties have committed to:

The Liberals have committed to:

  • Considering proposals for community owned energy projects and exploring the viability of co-designing and funding an Aboriginal Renewables Program.

SA-Best have committed to:

  • Establish a government backed, community owned non-profit retailer for South Australians on low-incomes and small business.
  • Fund the development of community owned and led energy projects.
  • Work with Aboriginal communities to fund and collaboratively design an Aboriginal Renewables Program.
  • Provide incentives to landlords and renters to install solar pv and/or batteries, “looking at what makes most sense considering a combination of PV, energy management, energy efficiency, batteries and maybe subject to means testing”.

The Greens have committed to:

  • Establishing a publicly-owned, non-profit energy retailer which guarantees the lowest prices for low-income households.
  • Expanding the scope and amount of energy concessions to low-income households.
  • Installing solar panels and solar hot water on all suitable government buildings and tenanted public housing properties.
  • Establishing an Indigenous Communities Clean Power Program to ensure that all Aboriginal communities in South Australia have access to clean, affordable, local renewable electricity.

Labor have:

  • Funded the world’s largest virtual power plant, beginning with a roll out of solar panels and batteries to 25,000 public homes and expanding to a further 25,000 homes. Labor has committed to using the trial phase of the virtual power plant rollout to look at ways to strongly encourage uptake in the private rental market.
  • Strongly supported non-government groups participating in the virtual power plant retail tender to establish a ‘community retailer’ and have held significant meetings.
  • Established the ‘Fund My Neighbourhood’ program and strongly encourage community energy groups to apply for funding through the $20 million program’s second round of funding.

Make South Australia a Renewable Powerhouse for Australia and the World

South Australia has a major opportunity to be a renewable energy powerhouse for Australia and the world by using new technologies to export our solar and wind interstate and overseas.

Here’s what the parties have committed to:

Labor has:

  • Developed a renewable hydrogen export roadmap, including export targets
  • Funded a range of renewable hydrogen projects, including the recently announced world’s biggest hydrogen electrolyser co-located with a large wind and solar project proposed for Crystal Brook.
  • Attracted Sonnen to manufacture batteries in South Australia, who plan to export these batteries interstate and to the South-East Asia Pacific region from Adelaide.

The Liberals have committed to:

  • $200 million to build an interconnector to NSW, enabling more of South Australia’s renewable energy to be exported interstate.
  • They are also open to considering proposals for renewable hydrogen.

The Greens have committed to:

  • Setting a renewable export target of a further 50% of our electricity needs by 2030.
  • Establishing a renewable hydrogen export industry.
  • Building a state owned interconnector to NSW to enable more of South Australia’s renewable energy to be exported interstate.

SA-Best has:

  • Supporting research and development into renewable hydrogen.

You can read the full responses of Labor, Liberal, the Greens and SA-Best to Solar Citizens and other NGOs on energy and a range of other issues, here.

History and State of Solar Shingles

Written by Solar Citizens supporter Kyle Pennell. 

Back in 2016, Tesla acquired solar panel installer and manufacturer SolarCity to help it produce a new product, the solar roof. Tesla’s solar roof is made of a series of roofing tiles, some of which have solar cells inside. To all outward appearances, the tiles are identical, and each produces only a small amount of energy on its own. But when joined together, the tiles generate energy at a level that rivals standard solar panels.

When it was announced, the solar roof seemed like a revolutionary idea: a product that offered all the benefits of clean solar energy without the need for big, bulky solar panels. But what few people realized was that Tesla’s solar roof was actually a variation on the solar shingle (sometimes called a solar tile), a technology that has has been available commercially since 2005 and was patented in the 1970s.

Solar shingles consist of three three main layers. Like regular solar panels, each shingle absorbs and transmits the sun’s energy using a solar cell. A thin film known as a louver is placed over the cell. The louver allows light to pass through and makes the solar cell and other components within the shingle invisible from the street level. Finally, the louver and the cell are sandwiched between two pieces of tempered glass.

Compared to regular rack-mounted solar systems, solar shingles offer a number of advantages. Small and lightweight, the shingles are much easier to install than regular solar panels. And since they don’t require a roofing evaluation, the whole installation process proceeds much easier.

Some solar shingles are bundled with longer-than-average warranties. Tesla’s solar roof, for instance, is guaranteed to produce power for 30 years; the standard solar panel warranty is just 25 years. On top of that, the tiles themselves are warrantied for the entire lifetime of the house.

Manufacturers also celebrate solar shingles’ aesthetic value. Standard solar panels are highly visible and jut out visibly from the roof. Solar shingles, on the other hand, are often (though not always) indistinguishable from standard tiles on any other roof.

Tesla isn’t the only company that produces solar shingles. Solarmass, for instance, offers a tile that the company claims has a carbon footprint 136 times lower than that of standard solar panels. Aesthetic Green Power, headquartered in Minnesota, offers two solar tile products and recently partnered with Columbia University and Virginia Tech to improve its production processes. And Redwood Renewables currently manufactures a solar tile that, the company claims, has an energy efficiency rate that exceeds that of standard solar panels by nearly 20 percent.

But before Tesla, Dow was the biggest name in the solar shingle industry. When the technology behind its solar shingle, the Powerhouse, was first unveiled in 2009, Time named it one of the inventions of the year. The company claimed that the Powerhouse would cost 10 to 15 percent less than traditional solar arrays and projected sales of $10 billion by 2020.

But Dow stopped selling it in 2016 after just five years in production. Compared to traditional solar panels, the shingles were both more expensive and less efficient. The final nail in the Powerhouse’s coffin was the merger between Dow and DuPont, which saw both companies reorganized into DowDuPont.

But the company, it seems, isn’t ready to throw in the towel on solar shingles just yet, and recently announced its intention to revive the Powerhouse. In partnership with RGS Energy, the new ”Powerhouse 3.0” will utilise standard silicon solar cells rather than the CIGS thin-film technology that previous iterations of the Powerhouse did. This design decision should boost the shingles’ efficiency and lower their cost. DowDuPont plans on beginning installations this year.

The cost of getting your roof outfitted with solar shingles depends on the particular tile you choose to install and the number of tiles you want. As is the case with regular solar panels, the more energy you use, the more solar shingles your home will need. Tesla’s solar roof, which became available for preorder in Australia last year, will cost about $22 per square foot. According to some estimates, that means that a standard rooftop solar setup will cost about 30 percent less than the average cost of Tesla’s solar roof.

Australia-based Bristile Roofing offers its own solar roofing product which, like Tesla’s, consists of a mixture of solar and non-solar tiles. While it costs about three times as much as a regular solar setup, Bristile’s solar roof boasts efficiency rates on par with standard solar panels.

Tractile offers a somewhat more affordable and more efficient solar roof. Priced at $13,000 for a four-kilowatt system, the Tractile Eclipse is unique in that its tiles are far larger than normal tiles, and resembles a grid of interlocking solar panels more than it does a standard solar shingle installation.

The most affordable Australian option today is from Nulok Roofing. The company’s award-winning “solar inserts” boast efficiency rates of 18 to 22 percent and can cost as little as $8,000 (excluding the cost of an inverter and installation).

But according to PowerScout, a California-based solar startup, the price of solar shingles will continue to decline along with other costs in the solar industry. That’s even more likely now that big players like DowDuPont and Tesla are in the market.

Solar shingles are an especially good idea for anyone building a new home or replacing their old roof. By combining roof replacement and solar panel installation into a single process, homeowners could save money that would otherwise be spread out over two separate upgrades. Thanks to Australia’s generous financial incentive programs, installing a solar roof is both easy and affordable. And like regular solar panels, a solar roof can help you save dramatically on your energy bill while doing your part to lower your carbon footprint.

South Australia should aim for 100% renewables by 2025, not 50%

South Australia can show the rest of the nation how to build an energy system that makes people's lives better. But to get there, whichever party is elected at the March 17 state election must be committed to a clear target and plan to achieve a fair transition to 100% renewables in the state by 2025.

South Australia already leads the nation in renewable energy and despite the continued bluster from the Federal Government in Canberra, South Australians are proud of it. Recent polling by the Climate Council found the majority of South Australians wanted the rest of the country to follow our lead. Renewable energy is the pride of South Australia.

But the job isn’t done. South Australians are still too often left at the whim of big gentailers who’ve consistently pushed up the price of power. That’s why Solar Citizens worked with Nicky Ison from the Community Power Agency on a new blueprint Repowering South Australia which not only shows how South Australia can get to 100% renewables by 2025 but also how we can ensure nobody is left behind along the way.

To get there, Repowering South Australia recommends:

  1. Making South Australia a renewable energy superpower by setting a 100% renewable energy target by 2025 and making a plan to export a further 50% outside of the state through technologies such as hydrogen.  
  2. Supporting low-income households by establishing a publicly-owned non-profit retailer to secure cheap, renewable power.
  3. Boosting local manufacturing by establishing renewable energy industry precincts in locations where renewable energy hotspots meet energy-intensive industry.
  4. Working with Aboriginal communities to design a well-funded Indigenous Communities Clean Power Program.
  5. Giving communities back power by establishing regional community energy hubs that increase community benefit from renewable projects.

A big step forward was made on Sunday to support South Australians currently locked out of the benefits of clean energy. 25,000 South Australians living in public housing will now be part of a connected home solar and battery power station with another 25,000 households. This program not only makes solar and storage available to people currently missing out, it will eventually reduce grid demand and wholesale power prices across the state. The big question is who will be running the show.

A government or community owned, non-profit retailer could be the retailer managing this world-leading project. This would put power back in the people’s hands and ensure existing gentailers aren’t able to use South Australians’ rooftops to keep gaming the system.

With this virtual power plant, Port Augusta’s solar thermal plant, and a wave of new solar, wind, battery and pumped hydro recently supported by the South Australian government’s renewable technology fund, there is no doubt we are going to eclipse our existing state renewable target of 50% renewables by 2025. That’s why South Australians and the renewable industry need to know where South Australia plans to head next and a strong 100% renewable target tells us just that.

In this context, it is maddening that Steven Marshall’s South Australian Liberal Party has committed to scrap the state renewable target in favour of a national target. With the Federal Government’s national energy guarantee predicted to send new renewable investment off a cliff and the national renewable target largely met, leaving South Australia’s transition waiting on a new national target makes no sense.

Some people might think that South Australia should wait for the other states to catch up before we move any further, but that would leave the job half done. We can’t risk leaving too much power in the hands of the big gentailers and allow jobs in new storage technologies to go interstate or overseas.

People across Australia and the world have been watching South Australia transform into a world leader in renewables with storage. By committing to a strong plan for a fair and fast transition to 100% renewables South Australian politicians can give people a reason to keep watching.

Dan Spencer is a South Australian Campaigner with Solar Citizens

**Originally posted on Reneweconomy 

Renters and low-income households feel the heat more than others

On Sunday western Sydney baked. When I checked my phone at 2pm it was 43 degrees in my area – a heat so intense that my Opal card melted when it was left in the car. Turning on the air-conditioning unit is a luxury that I seldom enjoy because of the spiralling cost of power prices. In the nearly intolerable Sunday heat I made an exception, but I know not everyone can afford to make that choice.

With many more summer scorchers to come, it's unacceptable that many of the most vulnerable people in our community will suffer the heat more harshly than others because of the barriers to accessing cost-cutting technology, such as rooftop solar.

As someone in their mid 20s, owning a house in Sydney is an impossibility in the short-term, and as a renter, I don't have the option of using the sunny roof of my share house to generate cheap power.

Renters, apartment dwellers and low-income households should have the option to take control of their power bills by having access to rooftop solar and storage. In NSW not nearly enough households are taking advantage of our abundant sunshine, likely because many people are renters.

The numbers tell us how far NSW is lagging: Queensland has nearly 150,000 more solar rooftops compared to NSW despite having a population almost 40 per cent smaller. The Berejiklian government needs to get serious about making cost-cutting solar and storage accessible to everyone.

Initiatives that give landlords an incentive to invest in solar and help other households where solar is out of reach will be good for individuals struggling to pay their bills and the hip-pocket of the whole of NSW.

The Solar Savings report commissioned by the community group I work for, Solar Citizens, found that in just one year rooftop solar saved at least $2.2 billion from the wholesale price of power by lessening peak demand.

Everyday people are outbidding expensive generators with clean, affordable power, and in the process helping keep the lights on by reducing demand during our summer heatwaves.

While there are some options for renters, such as Matter Solar's model that helps landlords install solar as an investment so tenants then reap the rewards of cheaper power, more can be done.

The ACT government recently announced a program to support low-income households to go solar, and it's initiatives such as this the NSW government needs to implement for a fair, bright future for all – not just those who can afford the upfront costs.

There are plenty of hot days to come this summer, but will the state government help all energy consumers take control of their power bills by going solar? After this past weekend's extreme heatwave, I can only hope.

Stephanie Gray is the Digital Campaigner for Solar Citizens. 

*First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, January 9 2018. 

Feed-in Tariffs in SA

South Australia is a leader in solar – there are hundreds of thousands of solar homes across the state that are pumping out clean power and slashing electricity bills for both solar owners and the whole community. But some retailers are giving solar owners a raw deal by paying them next to nothing for their clean energy that’s fed back to the grid. To make matters worse, those same retailers on-sell that same electricity for between three to five times the price. It’s daylight robbery!

That’s why Solar Citizens is campaigning for a Fair Price for Solar – to make sure that retailers recognise all the benefits that solar provides, including the environmental, health and network benefits.

At the beginning of this year, the Essential Services Commission of South Australia deregulated the minimum feed-in tariff retailers had to pay to solar owners, while threatening to re-regulate a minimum if the retailers did not increase their feed-in tariffs inline with rising wholesale power prices.

Since then, some retailers have done the right thing and increased their feed-in tariffs when power prices rose in July 2017, but some retailers have refused to recognise the role of solar households in the 21st century electricity grid.

The commission recently released a table of the feed-in tariff offers provided by retailers. It’s as clear as day that not all retailers are offering a fair price of at least 11 to 19 cents. Solar owners aren’t getting a fair deal and it’s time to re-regulate.

As always, when looking for the best offer from your retailer it is important to check the feed-in price against other charges to make sure you’re not getting paid more for your solar while being ripped off somewhere else. At least with this table, you have a place to start.

Add your voice with thousands of other solar citizens and join the campaign for a Fair Price for Solar by signing our petition.

If you’ve found this blog useful, changed your supplier or contacted your retailer to get a better deal for your solar and saved money, please let us know by emailing dan@solarcitizens.org.au.

Port Augusta solar power plant sends a message that renewable energy is the future

Five years ago the Port Augusta community stood at the crossroads of Australia’s energy future and they chose to back solar. 

Now, with Premier Weatherill and the South Australian Government announcing a solar thermal plant in Port Augusta, despite bumps along the way Port Augusta is set to be a renewable energy powerhouse for South Australia.

Port Augusta will become home to Australia’s first big solar thermal plant with storage. A field of mirrors will shine the region’s abundant sun to the top of a tower, heating molten salt that is stored and used to boil water and spin a steam turbine.

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Sydney students install world-first solar and storage project

Tenacious university students at Stucco, a low-income student housing cooperative in central Sydney, are setting a precedent for solar energy across Australia and worldwide. Thanks to these driven young people, their multi-unit residence is now running almost entirely on solar power, and boasts the most Enphase storage batteries ever installed in one place.

In Australia, we have almost boundless access to a massive free energy resource: the sun. We live in the sunniest country on Earth, and 1.6 million households are already making the most of this incredible, cheap power source by using rooftop solar panels and, increasingly, battery storage systems in their homes. However, millions of Australian tenants are getting left behind in the upgrade to clean, renewable energy. Unnecessary red-tape and outdated regulations mean there are still very few systems installed on apartment buildings and residential complexes.

These students recognised that this wasn’t good enough, so they started a groundbreaking project to install a cutting-edge solar PV and battery system that would provide 80% of the power needs of their 8-unit housing complex. Solar cell technology is cost effective, efficient, and readily available, and battery storage capacity is quickly catching up. All they had to do was install it on a larger scale… or so they thought.

"Our work will benefit a thousand-odd low income students by providing them with cheaper electricity," Bjorn Sturmberg, project leader.

What seemed like a simple enough project at first became a long, arduous process of hoop jumping and negotiations. As we all know, planning permission guidelines, complaints from neighbours, and local government regulations can stand in the way of the most basic new garden fence, let alone innovative pilot projects like the installation of solar and storage at Stucco.

In this case, the students also had to combat outdated energy legislation that prevents residents from using power without purchasing it from official energy providers via the building management. However, as a housing cooperative, the students collectively manage their residence, presenting a unique opportunity in which the interests of the tenants and the owners are aligned.

Eventually, with the assistance of a grant from the City of Sydney, the project was up and running.

Prior to planning the solar panels and battery system, smart meters were installed in each unit to assess how much energy was needed to run the residence. In the end, 114 solar PV panels and 36 storage batteries were installed, which will produce 30kW of energy -- 80% of Stucco’s power needs.

The smart meters will continue to monitor each unit’s power consumption, and feed that information back to the body corporate, allowing owners to bill tenants according to their consumption. This innovative retailing solution provides cheaper, cleaner power for the tenant, and a steady stream of income to the owners to subsidise the installation and maintenance costs of the solar and storage system.

“Our work will benefit a thousand-odd low income students by providing them with cheaper electricity,” said Bjorn Sturmberg, the leader of the project, at the launch event for Stucco Solar+Storage. “And then there's the 40 odd tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions being saved annually, the additional income to the co-operative, and opened pathway for many more apartment blocks to replicate similar systems.”

This pioneering student-led sustainability project proves that it’s possible to benefit both renters and landlords while upgrading to clean, renewable energy. And the best part is, the tenants at Stucco are now enjoying solar power that costs 20% less than the cheapest energy on the market.

Smart meter offerings for NSW Solar Bonus Scheme customers

For 146,000 people on the gross Solar Bonus Scheme in New South Wales (20c or 60c feed-in tariff), the end of the scheme is fast approaching (31 Dec 2016).

So if you’re a solar owner on the scheme, what should you do? One of the first things is to ensure you get a nett meter installed. Without this meter, come 1 January 2016 all the energy generated from your solar system will effectively be exported to the grid at a measly retail rate of around 6c/kwh. What you’ll be able to do with a nett meter is use your solar electricity rather than grid electricity which costs 4 or 5 times that amount. A typical solar bonus scheme customer risks wasting $30 per month or more without a nett meter from 1 January 2016.

Swapping from gross to nett meters will usually involve getting a smart meter.

How to get a smart meter? In the past, electricity networks (the companies that own the poles and wires) have owned and read your meter. But now, electricity retailers are able to sell and own meters and are most likely to set you up with a smart meter.

There are different kinds of smart meters with different functions but at a minimum they record energy consumption and transmit this remotely via a built-in 3G modem, avoiding manual checks of the meter. This means no more men in high vis inspecting your fuse box every few months. If nothing else, smart meters should slash the rate of dog attacks on innocent meter readers! The more sophisticated smart meters will be able to record your usage and generation more frequently - some even provide data in real times so can get more information on when you’re using and generating electricity.

Solar Citizens directly surveyed the largest 20 electricity retailers on how they are assisting customers to have a smart meter installed. We found a range of approaches and some less than genuine deals.

The Energy Australia offer is the most alarming. Australia’s third largest retailer is advertising “free” smart meters but will be charging customers $10 or $20 per month for an uncapped period. There’s also an exit fee that applies if you want to switch retailers and Energy Australia refused to provide details on the rates being offered. We reckon this deal deserves a wide steer. (UPDATE - it seems Energy Australia have provided an additional offer after Solar Citizens raised concerns. Watch this space.)

There are 6 retailers offering what seem to be genuinely free smart meters. They are claiming no extra increases in tariffs or exit fees for these smart meters. At least two of these retailers (AGL and Origin) are installing smart meters on an “opt out” basis so if you’re already a customer and don’t respond to their letter, you’ll have a smart meter installed before the end of the year.

Furthermore, the offer by community-owned retailer Enova is transparent although will lead to an extra $91 per year. Similarly, the Mojo offer includes a free meter but requires going onto a specific plan which is really only worthwhile for large energy consumers.

Retailers - especially the large ones - should be in a position to offer free meters because even though the upfront costs for them are not insignificant (around $600 each or more), they will be able to recoup these costs over time by avoiding costs to manually read the meters. (Avoided expenses from dog-attack insurance is bound to save them a bucket alone.)

The unknown factor (and hopefully one in which the IPART inquiry will look into), is what happens when you decide six months down the track to switch to a different electricity retailer but your smart meter is owned by the retailer you switched from? Will the retailer that owns your meter be able to charge your new retailer a fee that gets passed onto you? What happens to your usage data? Will the retailer that owns the meter still have rights to the data? There are also grave concerns that different kinds of meters won’t be compatible with different retailers, which could mean installing expensive new meters when customers switch to a new provider.

Another key question is what kind of access to data retailers will provide. Some retailers such as Powershop are offering full access to data gathered by smart meters whilst Energy Australia has one offer that includes access to monitoring and data and another, more expensive offer that doesn’t.

We would have liked to ask more questions of retailers about what meters they are installing, how the data will be provided to customers and so on but we found it difficult enough getting simple information from most retailers!!

For all the failings of the smart meter roll-out in Victoria, it does seem like the competitive model about to be trialled in NSW won’t apply lessons learned by the sector.