Sun, Mar 26, 2017 - Page 7 News List

Solar program makes the sun shine for everyone in Melbourne

A ‘renewable’ energy project in Melbourne, Australia, makes solar panels affordable for people with low incomes while helping them save money, too

By Michael Slezak  /  The Guardian

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.

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