Australia has the highest rate of rooftop solar panels in the world, but also one of the lowest rates of large scale solar infrastructure. You, dear reader, are better at renewable energy than the government you pay your taxes to.
There is, of course, a very good reason for this. Various government programs over the years, including the Small Scale Renewable Energy Scheme, have set aside a significant amount of money for subsidies for distributed rooftop solar, making it relatively affordable for Aussie homeowners to install solar panels and inverters and reduce their reliance on the national electricity grid.
15 per cent of Australian homes have photovoltaic (PV) systems installed on their rooftops, the highest rate in the world — and it's higher even than that in some areas. Out in Bourke in regional NSW, for example, nearly 20 per cent of homes have solar panels installed on their roofs. The average across South Australia and Queensland is above 30 per cent The Australian Solar Institute's photovoltaic installation map gives a good idea of the wide distribution of solar — it's not just built-up, cashed-up city and suburban areas that have densely packed rooftop small-scale solar.
But that's in stark contrast to the almost complete lack of large-scale solar in Australia. Only 18 per cent of Australia's solar generation comes from large, single-source photovoltaic and solar thermal power plants, despite our wide open spaces and excellent year-round sunlight. The ACT's Solar Highway is a tour of the territory's solar plants, but it's a surprisingly limited one for a region that's promised to switch to 100 per cent renewable energy by 2020.
In recent years, the rate of battery energy storage installations into Aussie homes has jumped with the popularity and media attention of gadgets like the Tesla Powerwall, letting existing rooftop solar users and new installers store up the sun's energy and use it after dark, when a household usually uses the most electricity for lighting and heating and evening entertainment.
This might change in the years to come, with government investing in some larger solar projects — including a $110 million injection to kickstart a solar thermal plant in South Australia — but for now, Australian households, not the government or its multinational corporate partners, are the champions of solar power around the country.
The southern stretches of the Monaro Highway make for a wholesome pastoral drive, passing fields full of cows and golden grass swaying in soft breezes. The road winds around hills and dams, at one point tipping up and over a crest to reveal an unexpected sight. thousands of solar panels shining in the hard Australian sun.
This is the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, on the border of Nevada and California in the southern United States. With three of these massive solar thermal towers and 4000 acres filled with 173,500 sunlight-reflecting heliostat mirrors, it generates four times as much power as the largest solar plant in the southern hemisphere, and is the largest solar thermal power station in the world. It's actually beautiful, and we could have it.