Solar panels at pension prices sees regional city taking energy into its own hands
Written Friday 7 December 5:48am By Gabriella Marchant
Low-income residents of a regional South Australian city are using an innovative solar scheme to shave money off their power bills.
The Port Pirie Regional Council recognised that with more than half of the city's population on government benefits, its residents could not afford runaway energy prices or a $3,000 solar system on their homes.
As the Federal energy debate raged without resolution, Councillors in Port Pirie, at the foot of SA's Flinders Ranges, put to tender an ambitious home solar scheme.
Port Pirie Regional Council's director, James Holyman, said the council was aiming to get a solar power system set up that people could pay off over four years, for no more than $20 a week.
“We wanted to use community collective buying power to get a high-quality product at a great price," he said.
What was the deal?
The Council's demands were simple; In return for recruiting hundreds of local customers, a business would deliver specified quality solar panel systems to be repaid over four years for the price of an average electricity bill or lower.
"Our intention was to get a system at that price to help the most vulnerable," Mr Holyman said.
With a bid offering South-Australian-made panels and batteries at the specified price, South Australian company Cool or Cosy won the tender.
Managing Director Glenn Morelli said 800 community expressions of interest in the program made it doable.
"We priced it very aggressively for the council to meet their brief and we really needed that volume to make it financially viable," he said.
"The more people, the better for everybody."
He said residents then installed the solar systems on their roofs, instantly reducing their power bills as they paid it off over four years.
"Then after the four years all that energy is free, and they're no longer paying for the system anymore," Mr Morelli said.
Is it working?
Though they installed the panels halfway through their last billing period, Gordon and Lorraine Williams said their electricity bill nearly halved, and they expect the trend to continue.
"The next bill should go down to $100," Mrs Williams said.
The average weekly income of Port Pirie residents at the latest census was $500, so the savings are a huge relief.
"We never go out for dinner or anything because it's the extra money," she said.
"Now I've got $200 extra that we can actually go out for dinner or go to Adelaide to see my daughter."
The system deducts the solar panel repayment directly from the Centrelink user's fortnightly allowance before it is paid to their bank.
"We don't even see the money taken out of the bank … paid, everything, done," Lorraine said.
The solar panels used in the project are made in Adelaide and, as of recently, the batteries will be too.
The company running the project has partnered with Sonnen, which has just opened a factory in Adelaide's northern suburbs at the former Holden site.
Mrs Williams said it was an added bonus that participation in the scheme was supporting South Australian jobs.
"They're always going to have a job because the panels are guaranteed for 25 years," she said.
"So in 25 years, we won't be here, but someone else comes along, they'll be able to renew them."
What others can learn
When all — roughly 300 — systems are installed at the beginning of 2019, Port Pirie Council hopes to run data from software that monitors all systems to assist the rollout of similar programs around Australia.
"I don't want to own the model, so Cool or Cosy could take this model to other councils around the state and benefit other communities."
Through research being conducted at Adelaide University, there are also hopes for a community microgrid, which could leave Port Pirie independent of the state power grid.
Mr Holyman said with the Upper Spencer Gulf and surrounds being the site of multiple large-scale renewable projects, Port Pirie's independence could benefit the state.
"If we could build the microgrids and take that load off the system, it would provide more for the current infrastructure for those renewables to the main population centres like Adelaide," he said.