Victoria is hitting the big-time with commitments to a major roll-out of rooftop solar, but energy efficiency remains the poor cousin despite offering significant benefits. In a new report, we map out a comprehensive plan for fixing this situation.
With solar installation rates now 15 times what they were a decade ago and suburban Cranbourne ranking as Victoria’s top solar postcode, rooftop solar is certainly not the niche activity it once was. The Victorian government’s ambitious Solar Homes commitment to assist 650,000 households over ten years will supercharge that growth, firmly positioning rooftop solar in the mainstream.
Solar Homes is a welcome commitment to scale, and follows a series of sustainable housing initiatives over the last four years spanning low-income household retrofit programs, expansion of the Victorian Energy Upgrades Program and development of the Residential Efficiency Scorecard.
The challenge now is to ensure these multiple initiatives collectively reach those Victorians who need the bill saving and health benefits of sustainable homes the most.
Smart Clean Energy for All pulls together the various policy and program threads at play at the moment, to map out how we can achieve a large-scale transformation of our homes and ensure the transition to clean energy is fair.
The solutions we need are not all about simply spending more public money. While financial assistance through programs such as Solar Homes will make solar investment easier for many, it won’t knock out the range of non-financial barriers that face many others, particularly low-income and disadvantaged households.
For a start, confusion about where to get trustworthy, relevant advice can be as big a barrier to action as cost. That was certainly the feeling from our report launch in suburban Frankston – and this from a roomful of people with enough commitment to come out on a weeknight to talk about clean energy. For the average household, the time and effort required to navigate the complex and constantly changing energy market is enough to keep sustainability issues at the back of most people’s minds.
A lack of trusted advice is particularly relevant when it comes to accessing energy efficiency advice. Efficiency improvements not only offer low-cost bill savings and emission reductions and increase the amount of clean energy being fed into the grid, but also reduce the health risks of living in very hot or very cold homes. But efficiency is generally ‘out of sight, out of mind’, and therefore forgotten. The best way to deliver efficiency advice is to ‘piggy-back’ on services people are already interacting with – when someone wants to install solar they should also be encouraged to consider whether they need to top-up their insulation or improve their draught-sealing.
We’d like to see a state-wide network of Home Energy Hubs set up in partnership with local government and community agencies, providing ‘one-stop-shop’ advice on energy tariffs, efficiency, solar and storage, as well as a portal to financial assistance and installation services. Making it as easy as possible for households to get timely, independent advice could unlock significant additional private investment in environmental upgrades for our homes.
However, even better information and financial assistance offered through programs such as Solar Homes won’t necessarily reach those households most in need. Vulnerable households can face a range of additional culture, language and education barriers to accessing mainstream assistance programs, even when these are offered at no upfront cost.
These households need tailored interventions that integrate advice, behaviour change and retrofit services delivered by trusted local government and community sector agencies. But delivering effective programs takes time and money. The household retrofit programs currently being delivered by the Victorian government are a good start, but currently far too small to make the difference we need.
These programs could be scaled up by partnering with community agencies, energy businesses and local government to address the fragmentation in current delivery approaches and reduce program costs. Collaborating with energy retailers in the context of their responsibilities for assisting customers in energy hardship, as well as ensuring Solar Homes dovetails with existing local government solar bulk buy and rates-based financing schemes, will help maximise reach and impact.
Beyond delivering programs, government also has a critical role in creating a stable policy environment that drives investment and broadens access to efficiency and clean energy for all. Priorities include modernising standards for new and existing homes, maintaining the momentum of the Victorian Energy Efficiency Target scheme, and helping to make solar gardens a viable option for renters and apartment dwellers.
Ambitious commitments such as Solar Homes have put Victoria back on the path to reclaiming its leadership status in efficiency and clean energy. Whoever wins November’s state election will have a responsibility to maintain and build on this momentum, if they’re serious about helping Victorians in energy hardship and driving a rapid and fair transition to clean energy.