2017 solar installations jump by half to hit record 1GW

ns exceeded 1 gigawatts of rooftop solar panels for the first time last year, with the market set to expand further in 2018 amid ongoing worries about electricity prices, according to Green Energy Markets.

The country added about 1.078 gigawatts of new rooftop solar capacity last year, beating the previous record set in 2012 by 14 per cent, the consultancy said.

The increase over 2016 was about 50 per cent.

“The surge is happening across every state … and across all segments of the market,” said Tristan Edis, director of analysis for Green Energy Markets.

“It’s heavily driven by the electricity price hikes and the media attention around them, because it’s become a political issue.”

The tally is based on the number of renewable energy certificates (known as STCs) created by small-scale panel installations, and excludes the rapidly increasing utility-scale solar farms.

Rooftop installations last year grew a third last year to 172,152 units, snapping a four-year drop. Consumers are shifting to larger units, with 5-kilowatt systems increasingly typical of the market.

The spurt of solar orders is likely to continue well into 2018 in part because installers have struggled to find staff to meet demand in recent months.

“The market was definitely constrained at the end of 2017,” said Warwick Johnston, managing director of SunWiz, another consultancy.

Even though electricity price rises are expected to taper this year and next, solar demand is unlikely to flag soon.

“Module prices are low, awareness of electricity prices is huge, and momentum in commercial sales keeps on growing,” Mr Johnston said. Commercial break

The revival of the small-scale end of the solar industry began around mid-2016 after wholesale prices spiked in South , Mr Edis said.

Debate over electricity intensified after a powerful storm knocked out power in the state in September of that year.

The events helped to reverse a trend of falling residential demand following the removal of state support schemes and slashed feed-in tariffs paid for exports to the grid.

Business demand had picked up some of the slack – and it has continued to grow.

Mr Edis estimates commercial demand for sub-100 kilowatt systems already made up almost 30 per cent of the market last year.

He expects about a third of firms will see their power contracts expire this year and will face very large hikes in energy charges that will make solar panels appealing.

Natalie Collard, an executive for industry development with the Clean Energy Council, said rooftop solar installations had risen 50-fold in the past decade.

“Today we are seeing farmers, airports, shopping centres, apartment buildings, homes and small businesses installing solar power and storage to take the heat out of their power bills,” Ms Collard said. ‘Huge year’ ahead

The rooftop solar industry itself could be eclipsed within a year or two by the rapid expansion of large-scale solar farms.

According to the Clean Energy Council, there are 33 solar farms under way – including two with wind turbines – totalling 2.291 gigawatts of capacity.

“More large-scale solar farms managed to secure project finance than ever before in 2017, setting up the industry for a huge year [in 2018] in terms of investment and jobs,” Ms Collard said.

“With states such as Queensland providing incentives to build solar farms in locations with some of the best sunshine in the world, solar is leading the new resources boom right now.”

The increasing scale of the industry globally will also likely keep the pressure on prices.

Solar energy costs will fall about 35 per cent for every doubling of installed capacity between 2010 and 2020, according to a report released over the weekend by the International Renewable Energy Agency.

That pace is faster than the 21 per cent rate forecast for onshore wind and 14 per cent for offshore wind over the period, the report said.

The report found the global levelised cost of electricity for onshore wind now sits at US 6 cents (AUD 7.6 cents) a kilowatt hour, with solar energy at US 10 cents per kilowatt hour.

Fossil fuel energy costs for new plant typically range between US 5 and 17 cents per kilowatt hour.

With Cole Latimer