The Myths And Truths of Solar Energy

renewable energy

Brought to you by Nuffnang and Origin Energy

Recently I was invited to attend a day with Origin Energy, who are the leading energy retailer in Australia. They wanted to talk to me about solar energy, and I was keen to attend. I have a pretty alarming electricity bill and, yes, I have never felt like I know enough to make an informed decision about using Solar Power.

We have heard lots of stories of bills being zeroed out, as well as stories about solar energy making no impact at all. I was armed with questions.

Equally I was armed with the greenie in me, the greenie that lived within my mother and had me attending environmental protests. I also do my bit via our backyard chickens that deliver us eggs and nourish our vegetable garden. I am not a hardcore environmentalist, I wouldn’t go that far, but I am certainly keen to see Earth thrive and I think renewable energy is part of the puzzle.

The main aim of this paper is to be a useful summary resource. It won’t answer all your questions, but it is my sincere aim for you to understand more about solar power and renewable energy after reading it.

WHY don’t we ALL just use ALL renewable energy right now?

That was the question we asked, and they answered for us very early on. I have certainly wondered why the country (in-fact, the world) is not littered with wind farms; every single roof top plastered with solar panels. I don’t think it is useful to enter into discussions regarding political investment etc, so I am not going to do that, but I will show you why renewable energy is not the number one choice (the only choice in the world) right now. It doesn’t mean it won’t be one day. It doesn’t mean that one pressure won’t outweigh another in a future. It simply means that, right now, this is the limiting reality.

The below infographic is designed to show (in white) what we DEMAND from an energy source. Whether it is industry or a residential home, we want our electricity service to be reliable, we want it to be affordable, and we want it to be sustainable when considering the environment. We want all three points to be met, but obviously affordability and reliability are our priorities. Before you become all Utopian on me, please note that I agree that we need to save the planet. But most of us we simply demand too much power in our day to day lives right now to simply walk away from the grid and go 100% renewable power. There just aren’t enough reliable, affordable renewable energies to sustain our energy use.

Back to the infographic. As you can see (in green), each energy source comes with its own limitations. This is the conundrum of energy providing. I think it captures a moment in time. I think that as our technologies change our pricing changes, our ideas around sustainable care changes, and so will our demands change. But for now this is the reality.

That is the WHY. So let’s move onto the nuts and bolts of solar energy, which is the main source of renewable energy available for use in homes around Australia.

energy use for humans

The CRAZY NUMBER ONE truth about Solar Power

The general rule with solar is, that IF you DO NOT use electricity during the day, then Solar Power WILL NOT reduce your electricity bill. FULL STOP. Because….a solar system – made up of solar panels and an inverter DOES NOT store solar energy – the system simply produces it. If you USE electricity while solar energy is being produced, ie. In daylight hours, then everything is hunky-dory. You’ll use the electricity as it’s generated. IF YOU DON’T use electricity as it is being produced, ie. You’re mainly an evening user, then the energy you generate you lose in to the grid FOREVER. In most cases, you do get paid to send this electricity back to the grid, but at a rate significantly less than what you pay for it. Solar energy is not stored in the average home system setup (see FAQ below for more information).

solar energy doesnt work at night

FAQ about Solar Panels and Energy

1> What is solar energy? A very basic overview would be that solar energy is power harnessed from the suns rays. For this power to be captured as an energy service solar panels are used. These take in the suns rays and via an inverter convert them into electricity for you to use.

2> What happens if you don’t use the solar energy you are generating? It goes back into the grid (which means it can be used by someone else).

3> What benefit is it to you to have the energy go back into the grid? OK, this is a big one. For some people who signed up pre-2013, they were getting 44c back per KW of energy they generate, in some cases. For others who signed up after this generous rebate was offered, they get much less. Either way, there is a benefit in generating excess electricity as it will go back into the grid to help the greater community. You won’t necessarily individually benefit from it, unless you are using the same amount of electricity at the same moment you are producing it.

4> Are some solar panels better than others? Although they all technically do the same thing, there is a HUGE variation on quality of solar panels. Cheap variations degrade more over time and are less reliable in harsh Australian conditions. Higher quality panels (like the ones we sell) are designed to last 25 years or more.

5> Does choosing GREEN Energy on your electricity bill mean you are contributing to the investment of renewable infrastructure? No, not necessarily. This one shocked me too, but most energy retailers don’t build your infrastructure. The people you buy your electricity off are in most cases, just retailers, they simply buy energy from the companies who are generating. Most energy retailers can’t define what’s built and how power is made. Origin is different here. They also produce energy through their own plants and resources, and are constantly seeking ways to use more renewable energy and make it a reliable source. But that is a whole other discussion.

6> Does choosing Green Energy on your bill mean you are exclusively using green energy? NO. Sorry to disappoint, but it does not mean that. What it does mean is that electricity retailers as a whole use more green energy because of you. Essentially you have contributed to more green energy being purchased by that retailer, but they have no means of just sending that green power to your home by itself.

7> Why do some people save more from having solar than others? 

This one can be complex, but if we use Solar as a Service as the example model, these would be some of the reasons:

  • You’re a day time electricity user. Daytime electricity users benefit most from solar power as it’s generated in the day. Solar power is generally charged at a cheaper rate than grid power, therefore daytime usage bills would be lower.
  • You maximize your daily electricity use, and use little to no electricity in the evening. If you have a solar system and use only a little energy in the evenings the majority of your power will be solar. You’d only be using grid power in darker hours for a bare minimum of tasks, so you’d really be keeping all cost to day time solar charges – not grid charges. Solar tariffs are normally lower.

With most solar systems

  • You’re benefitting from feed-in tariffs. If you purchased your solar system yourself then you could also be benefiting from a feed-in tariff, depending on your retailer. This is the rate your energy retailer pays you for spare energy you generate. The feed-in tariffs aren’t huge, but they would still reduce your bill, as you get a credit for supplying energy back to the grid for others to use.
  • A large system may not be better. A large system could generate more power than you need so you’d be feeding even more power back into the grid, increasing your credit from the feed-in tariff, but with Solar as a Service, a system that’s too big isn’t beneficial, so it’s best to speak to an expert to get the right system for you.

Where you live

In both cases, either owning a system or having one on contract with Solar as a Service, where you live makes a difference. More sunlight = more power.

Consider to how much sun your roof gets. The expert solar team at Origin can help you decide how many panels you need and where they go so you can maximize your system.

8> Is it possible for everyone live off the grid and store solar? Theoretically yes, and in reality some homes are achieving it with the help of batteries. Battery technology is still fairly new, (there’s been some talk in the press very recently about the Tesla Powerwall). There is yet to be a really affordable battery that is effective enough to achieve mass grid-free living. I asked this question specifically, because many of us have aspirations of grid-free living, but, with current battery power and sizing, it could be like having 20 air conditioning-sized units strapped to my house for it to start making an impact and it would be very expensive! It’s true that technology is changing, but realistically, for most of us batteries are just too expensive to go off grid. And depending on solar without a battery means no power on dark or rainy days.

To register for Origin’s battery updates you can sign up here.

9> Do solar panels work at night or during cloudy weather? No. Solar Panels do not generate solar power at night and they will generate less energy on a cloudy day, as they will if they are shaded by a tree for part of the day. It all matters, and Energy Retailers like Origin provide a site-specific estimate of your system’s energy generation. Many solar companies will also calculate the impact this will have on your bill.

10> Is everyone going to benefit from Solar Energy? For lots of reasons solar energy systems are not suitable for all households. For example, if you are never in in the day time, solar may not be for you (until you can buy a battery). If you are looking for other ways to reduce your electricity bill we used the knowledge we obtained on our day with Origin Energy to gather 20 easy ways to reduce you electricity bill in Queensland.

Solar As A Service – The Game Changer

One of the biggest barriers to solar is the upfront cost. Either having to pay upfront or paying back as a loan have in the past been the only way that solar has been a possible energy solution for most households (especially since the incentives change). My electricity bill is well over $800 a quarter, and with a pool, a home business and alternating heating and cooling costs, I am keen to be able to reduce this cost.

Pay $0 upfront for a solar panel system 

Origin has introduced a new energy solution that makes powering your house with solar energy more attainable than ever, without the upfront cost. It’s called Solar As A Service, and it means you can start enjoying the benefits of going solar and, if you’re a day time electricity user, you could see savings on your bills straight away. Origin Energy install the solar system for free. Origin offer a lower energy rate for the energy produced by the system, as well as free maintenance for the length of the service you choose. It is a bit like lending your roof to Origin, who will install their own solar panels and systems, while you still getting the benefit of solar power at a cheaper rate than grid electricity. It also means you don’t have to worry about maintenance. If you were wondering if it this is a game changer- it is. It means everyone who could benefit from solar can.

trusted solar installer

When Origin Energy assess your eligibility, they will also help you to to understand how solar works and monitor the performance of your system during the lifetime agreement. For more information and to watch a short video to learn more about Solar As A Service, visit the Origin Energy website here.

Who will Solar as a Service work best for?

  • Households that use most of their electricity during the day when the sun shines.
  • It is a long term commitment, so will suit those who own their own home and who aren’t planning to move. Think about the future. Will there always be someone home during the day, or will that change?

With the Solar As A Service system, you can also consider adding a home battery to your energy supply, which can provide a chance to save when combined with the use of solar in your home or business.

How it works >

1. Origin Energy will check out your solar situation. They have a very cool mapping tool that can view your home from above, even taking tree growth into consideration, to ensure solar will work for your family.

trees and solar

2. You can choose a contract period that suits you. 7,10 or 15 years.

3. You lock in a low solar contract rate and Origin Energy will give you a conservative estimate of your savings.

4. A time is organised for installation (you pay $0 for the system).

5. You start paying for solar power you generate at the lower solar rate.

Where to from here?

I don’t really have any advice, because I am not accredited to give any, but I would suggest that you and I have nothing to lose by giving Origin a call and getting the household assessed for possible solar savings. I know that many of my friends have been put off by the upfront cost of solar panels, and this is likely the solution they are after. And it might be for you too. At the very least, I hope I have been able to give you some information to help you to understand how solar energy works. Renewable energy is undoubtedly in our future and it is well worth educating ones’ self on how it all works. Origin Energy is happy to step you through this, especially if you have questions I haven’t answered. I should also mention that Origin also have other solar options where you can buy a system upfront if that suits you better. If you own a system you also get paid a nominal fee for the units of power you feed back into the grid, (though this could be a lower rate than you expect). Solar as a Service is simply an additional offering that has been introduced to make solar more accessible for every Australian who can benefit.

The future of renewable energy and electric cars

While we were at the Origin office I was given the chance to drive an electric vehicle. Electric Vehicles (EVs) are continually evolving, and can now travel further than most people imagine; some up to 170 kilometres or more. Origin has been working on solutions for charging electric vehicles and provides charging installations in homes, businesses and at publicly accessible charging points across Australia. This makes it easier for people with electric vehicles to recharge with Green Power, e able to use zero petrol, and produce zero drive-time emissions while in EV mode; making it a smarter, cleaner energy solution for cars. At the very least, when you are considering buying a new car, find a place that sells electric cars and take the opportunity to take one for a test drive. I heard some very exciting things about the future of electric cars, including a 4WD electric car that made me particularly happy because we go camping A LOT.

This is a quote I took from Origin Australia’s website, and it makes me happy; happy for my children and happy to write this article. “We don’t yet know exactly which renewable technologies will evolve the fastest and prove the most efficient and economic over the long term. But we do know the future looks bright for renewable energy in Australia.”

For me, a practical reality is important. It’s as important as the ideal, because it means it is more likely to be achievable. This is what matters most, because practical change always brings us closer to the ideal.

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