As more people move towards becoming energy self-sufficient and install solar power to save money and the environment, it begs the question; How will the WA government recoup the revenue it's made from these power users in the past?

The state government has raised the idea of implementing a fixed household power charge but analysts are sceptical.

Like tens of thousands of others in WA, David Wapplington has put solar panels on the roof of his Karrinyup home.

He took advantage of the federal government's $8,000 rebate and spent an additional $16,000 on enough panels to provide two kilowatts of power.

"I want to retire and the last thing I want is escalating energy bills so I invested in solar panels," he said.

While he hasn't broken even just yet, he's recouped a significant amount of money so far from the power he sells back to the grid.

In Floreat, mother of two Nicola Peachey is contemplating the move to solar because of high power bills.

"In the short term it is going to be expensive but in the long term hopefully it is going to save us money," she said.

She and her husband were so shocked over the cost of their first bill when they moved here last year that this winter they've turned off the heating.

"It was about a thousand dollars for the quarterly (bill) and this year when we got the bill yeah it was about $300," Mrs Peachey said.

"Pretty much when we come home we just put jumpers on, put their ugg boots on, kids will put a blanket on them when they're watching TV."

The number of WA householders investing in solar is growing at 20 per cent per year.

In 2008 there were around 13,000 Australian households with solar panels on their rooftops but with the cost of the technology decreasing and generous state and federal government rebate schemes, more than one million Australian homes now have them installed and 75,000 of those are in Western Australia.

Kirsten Rose heads up the Sustainable Energy Association and says Australians will continue to take up solar energy.

"It won't slow down and it will probably only pick up in pace as we go forward," she said.

"The reason being is that solar stands on it's own now economically.

"It is a lot less expensive than it has been and a payback time for a system can be three, three-and-a-half years (from) now."

She was furious last week when the WA Government announced as part of the state budget it would slash the net feed-in tariff paid to those who sell excess energy from their panels back into the main grid.

It reversed the decision four days later after a massive public backlash which included threats of legal action from people who'd signed ten-year contracts with the state government.

After encouraging solar take up with generous rebates, the state government has now discovered it's created its own budget black hole.

The Premier Colin Barnett says people selling power into the grid are taking advantage of existing infrastructure but not contributing to the cost of installing or maintaining it.

"People who have got solar panels, and particularly if they are self sufficient, still rely on a connection to the grid and the grid is about 40 per cent of the cost of electricity," he said.

"So you've now got one group of people with solar panels using the grid when they need it and actually selling electricity through the grid but not contributing to the cost of it."

To recoup those costs, the Premier's flagging changes to way power is charged.

"It's fair to say that electricity consumers, all of us, whether we've got solar panels or not, maybe we should be paying a fixed component for all the infrastructure, particularly the power line system, and then a variable charge on how much electricity we use," he said.

The government is considering splitting the current, consumption-based charge system into a user-charge and fixed-fee system for accessing the grid.

Ms Rose says a fixed fee system is worth considering.

"I certainly think that is a possibility and it isn't inherently a bad idea," she said.

"I think the question is really, the devil is in the detail, in terms of how you implement something like that.

"So a fixed and variable scheme is reasonable but the way that it is implemented needs to be careful not to penalise solar owners."

But energy economist Adam McHugh isn't convinced.

"It is not the best approach, it is not an efficient approach," he said.

"The network doesn't supply energy, it supplies capacity. So it has the ability to provide energy at the highest demand time of the year so that peak half hour of the year, that's the service they supply so the price should reflect that service."

Mr McHugh prefers a fee structure targeting peak times.

"If you get the right pricing in place, people will react to that," he said.

"If you put in fixed charges there's no reaction to the peak.

"There is no incentive for someone to reduce their energy consumption at the peak if there is a fixed charge."

But the Sustainable Energy Association wants to ensure that the momentum towards green power isn't lost in the shake-up

"Some people say solar pv owners aren't paying their fair share of the network but we would argue that people who have installed massive reverse cycle air conditioning systems and underfloor heating, they're not paying their fair share of the network because they're using it to a greater degree," Ms Rose said.

The Energy Supply Association of Australia released a discussion paper in may about who pays for solar energy which states:

"The subsidies for solar systems have to be paid for somehow. Basically, households who don't have solar help pay the power bills of households who do. The cost of these transfers from non-solar to solar households now runs into the millions of dollars per year.

"Most solar households end up only paying a fraction of their fair share of the cost of maintaining the network. They're not deliberately doing it it's just the way the billing arrangements for electricity were set up.

"The current arrangements are unfair and need to be changed."

Adding to the government's woes is that last year more power was generated than demand which raises the question of how we pay for a network when fewer and fewer people are using it.

The Economic Regulation Authority is looking into the issue of power charges but is yet to reveal its terms of reference.

Whatever the result, higher costs for solar households are likely.

In the meantime residents like David Wapplington, will continue to enjoy the financial benefits of self sufficiency, even running his electric car from his rooftop panels

"I didn't set out to be green but it turns out that having an electric car and charging it with solar power, I've become the greenest man in the street and it gives you a good feeling," he said.

 

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