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How to join the solar boom without breaking the bank

The sun is shining and we are basking in a new solar boom.

About 2.6 million homes now have solar panels installed on their rooftops and Australians installed 39 per cent more in 2020 than in 2019, according to consultancy SunWiz.

Installing solar panels can be a big money saver.
Installing solar panels can be a big money saver.CREDIT:BLOOMBERG

The installation record has been broken each year since 2016 but then the coronavirus pandemic struck and Australians started spending up big on home improvements.

Working from home also makes solar more viable.

Clean Energy Regulator general manager Mark Williamson says: “In most capital cities, the payback for a 6.5kW system is about four years, but with working from home it’s about three years.“

Still, installing solar on your rooftop can be a hard decision, with so many options to choose from.

The technology is confusing and the industry’s reputation has been somewhat tarnished by backyard operators, prompting energy minister Angus Taylor to order a Clean Energy Council review, with its report due to be released soon.

So, I turned to two industry experts this week – Alex Georgiou from solar marketplace Shinehub
and Finn Peacock, author of The Good Solar Guide – to learn how you can climb aboard the solar bandwagon while avoiding some of the major pitfalls.

Here is what I learned.

1. Panels

These should be “Tier 1”, or those manufactured by big brands who have a good reputation in the industry. Georgiou says they should be 300 watts (the older ones were 250W) and be “mono PERC half-cut” – the most popular type sold. Demand a 25-year warranty.

2. Inverter

This is even more important than the panels, says Peacock, because it is the most likely element to fail during the first 10 years.

“If you’re on a limited budget, I recommend prioritising a premium inverter over premium panels,” he says. European models are proven performers.

Look for a five-year warranty – or even better, 10 years – on a reputable brand.

3. Batteries

They are not for everyone but they are coming down in price, with the newest models now listed at less than $10,000.

Georgiou says batteries are more likely to suit if you use most of your energy at night, or if you connect up to a Virtual Power Plant – a network of decentralised, medium-scale power generating units such as wind farms or solar parks.

“If your main motivation is optimal payback or helping the environment, then don’t buy batteries (yet),” Peacock says.

4. Retailer and installer

Look for the 1175 retailers that are “Clean Energy Council approved”, which means they have agreed to higher standards than the bare minimum required by government.

For installers, ask if they are “Clean Energy Council accredited” – not just a CEC member.

Look for a warranty on installation of “at least five years”, Peacock says. The longer a company has been established, the better.

5. Energy monitoring

Does the package include energy monitoring? This is important because it is the only way you would know if your solar system is working properly. It is also a sign, Georgiou says, that the retailer is committing to making your system work long-term.

6. Is it too cheap?

This is a tricky one. Everyone wants to save but cheap solar deals can be a sign of a provider cutting corners. Some hardware is better than others, as are some installers.

You should look for that sweet spot where the price is good but you are still getting maximum value for your buck. Get at least three quotes that conform to the rules above and you can have some level of confidence, says Georgiou.

The most common solar system size for a typical family is 6.6kW, Peacock says. That should cost between $3000 and $4000 – plus another $1200 if it includes a European inverter.

Peacock puts the price of a good package at $5000-$9000, depending on the hardware.

Installing solar on your rooftop is a considerable outlay but, with the high cost of electricity bills, it is possible to take out five-year finance with zero down and spend less from day one than a typical household relying on grid electricity.

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