In Darebin, in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, solar installations have spread rapidly through the area’s low-income households.
“We call it the ‘nonna effect’,” says Trent McCarthy, an Australian Greens party councilor in Darebin, using an Australian colloquialism for grandmother. “The nonna in the street has her solar on her roof. She is very proud, she tells all of her friends. It is social marketing 101.”
Solar panels have spread throughout that area because the council has rolled out a program that allows local pensioners to install solar at no upfront cost and immediately start saving money, while the council recovers the full amount without interest over 10 years.
While electricity bills can be a serious cause of stress for low-income households, and solar can help to reduce electricity bills, it is those very low income households that often struggle the most to find the initial outlay to cover the cost of a solar installation.
As a result, those who can benefit most are often excluded. That observation was backed up by a survey run by the Darebin city council, says Gavin Mountjoy, the council’s environmental strategy coordinator.
“We surveyed a lot of pensioners — about 4,000 pensioners — to see what their main concerns were,” Mountjoy says.
Among the results, rising electricity prices jumped out as a major concern. However, the survey also revealed pensioners did not know who to trust to get solar panels installed and they did not have the money to pay for the installation.
So the council introduced the Solar Saver program.
“The Solar Saver program started as a result of a council initiative to try to explore ways to help pensioners and low-income households deal with rising electricity prices,” Mountjoy says.
The basic idea of the program is simple: The council would pay for the panels to be installed and get the money back over 10 years, through a small additional charge to the home owner’s land rates.
The first round of the program was open to low-income households who were receiving government income support.
Colin Sutton lives in a quiet street in Preston, part of the Darebin local government area. He lives at home and cares for his adult son who has autistic spectrum disorder. He was one of the first locals to take part in the program.
“I sell about A$100 [US$76.24] worth of power back to my power company every year, perhaps a little bit more,” he says. “And I estimate that I am saving about A$400 in actual power.”
He pays A$300 a year back to the council through his rates and estimates he is about A$200 ahead already. After 10 years, the panels will be paid off and, assuming they are still working, he will then be A$500 ahead each year.
The second round of the Solar Savers program sought to address another barrier to solar ownership: renting.
For most landlords, it does not make sense to install solar on a house they own: The tenants pay for electricity so the landlord takes the cost while the tenants make all the savings.
So Darebin city council partnered with low-income housing cooperatives and organized a similar deal.
Jen Jewel Brown lives in the Northcote Rental Housing Cooperative, which works with low-income renters. Unlike most renters, the renters in a cooperative are also owners of the organization that owns the land.
That meant the Solar Savers scheme could recoup the cost of the solar panels through the co-op, which then recouped the cost by adding a small rise to the rent of the residents that received solar.
Brown says the savings in the electricity bills immediately make up for the rent increase. She also says the program will help the cooperative itself expand.
“Once we have actually paid off the panels on the roofs, then that will be a net gain to the co-op that will allow us to do more environmentally friendly things, or house more people — or both, hopefully.”
As the council survey revealed, one of the key reasons that prevent people from getting solar installed is the complexity of the market, namely what system to get and who to trust to advise them.
Positive Charge is a non-profit company in Melbourne that supplies exactly that sort of advice.
“We help residents, businesses, schools and community organizations find ways to save energy, reduce their greenhouse impact and also improve the comfort of their buildings,” Positive Charge manager Kate Nicolazzo says.
“Positive Charge was, I guess, the trusted adviser. We were in a position where we could make sure people were getting the right advice around the sort of size system they should be putting on their house, and that any of the considerations were being taken into account to make sure people were not being taken advantage of and that council could actually support their installation of solar,” she says.
Nicolazzo says the Solar Savers program broke down the age barriers to becoming a solar owner.
“For this project, we had a man in his 80s come along to one of the information sessions and we thought he was the person who was going to be putting solar on their roof,” Nicolazzo recalls.
“And he said no, that is actually for my father. So, with the Solar Savers program, one of our great stories was a 102-year-old man putting solar on his roof because he understood that the benefits lasted way beyond his lifespan,” she says.
McCarthy says the program was a first in Australia, but is now being explored all around the country.
“Solar Savers has been a little bit of a quiet rooftop revolution.” he says.
However, McCarthy says state and federal governments could help to speed up the uptake of solar around the country, as well as make programs like Solar Saver more effective.
“We would love to see this program scaled up, but we know that one of the biggest barriers is actually the feed-in tariff,” he says.
“We would like to see a fair price for solar. People are getting a fair price compared to what they would be paying for fossil fuel energy from a power company,” he says.
Still, regardless, he says the program has been a success for everyone involved. “This is one of those programs that is a win-win-win,” McCarthy says.
The environment and the residents win, while the council makes back most of its money and also gets closer to its zero-greenhouse gas target.
“But, importantly, it makes a bit of a community change because it shows that, at the grassroots level, we can make a difference by aggregating the community [and] by bringing people together,” McCarthy says.
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