Episode 04: Is solar energy really worth it?

This is a good one! In the first episode of 2022, we sat down with Ben O’Brien from SolarPro Bendigo to talk about solar energy. Ben is a sustainable systems engineer and very passionate about solar energy, especially for residential homes.

He explained to us how solar panels work, how much they cost to install, and what current government loans are available for homeowners. On top of that, he had to answer a couple of very spicy questions to help our listeners determine once and for all: Is solar energy really worth it?

Episode Transcript

Sandra

Thanks again for joining us today Ben. We’re super excited to have this chat. Solar energy is a big polarising topic and we have a lot of ground to cover for sure. But first of all, we wanted to get to know you a little bit better. How did you get into solar panels and what was your motivation behind becoming a sustainable systems engineer?

Ben

Hi, thanks so much for having me on. Great initiative and movement that you guys are driving, so glad to be here. How did I get into solar? It’s a bit of an interesting one. I was just going through school and doing maths and being told I was good at it, so then I did an engineering class in year 12 where we did all sorts of random things, we built a crane and things like that. And then there was a little test in year 12 which was worth 5% in the year, so not much, about renewable energy. Me and my mate were talking a bit too much, so we didn’t really listen to what was being taught. So I thought I’d better study for this and figure out what’s going on.

So I did see some googling of different types of renewable energy and then just fell down the rabbit hole really. I was like “This is crazy, we can create electricity out of thin air, out of nothing. So I just thought “That’s so cool. How can I get involved in this?” And I’ve just been thinking about it ever since.

Sandra

Talking about education, can you maybe explain in simple terms how exactly a solar system works? Because I think a lot of people see solar panels and they kind of understand they have to be on the roof and the sun hits it and then they kind of create energy, but I don’t think a lot of people really know how they work in detail. So that might be a good thing for people to know.

Ben

It is pretty interesting. Basically, your solar panel has a layer of silicon solar cells inside it, which are protected by a glass sheet. The silicon is doped in a chemical that gives it a positive and negative charge. Essentially what happens is, you get photons or energy coming from the light. It comes and hits this silicon and the electrons inside the silicon atoms then begin to travel towards each end of the silicon cell. And then electricity begins to flow because the electrons have been excited enough to take the jump to the other end of the cell. And that’s electricity as we know it. So that gives us what’s called direct current electricity. That’s just a  steady flow of electricity flowing through a cable. That’s the same as what we get in our little AA batteries and things like that. That’s what we are used to.

However, that’s not compatible with our house. Houses actually use what’s called alternating current. If you have ever grabbed a camera and filmed a light in your house, you’ll notice that it’s flickering. You can’t see it with your eye but your camera will see the lights flickering. That’s because the current is alternating through the light, it’s pulsing back and forth pretty fast. To make this energy from your solar panels usable by a house, we have to put it through an inverter, or it should be called a converter, it converts it from direct current to alternating current. And then it can be used by a house and it can be used in the grid as well. So you just have your own little power station up there on the roof.

It’s cool to know because as I just said it’s actually powered by light, not by heat. Some people think it’s 45 degrees outside, the solar system must be roaring today. But it’s actually not quite the case, 25 degrees is normally around your optimal temperature. And you actually start to get a derating as it gets hotter. So if anyone is listening somewhere cold and miserable, like clients up in Ballarat, solar system will still be for you.

With the electricity, it’ll come down from the roof through the inverter into your house, and hopefully it gets all used up by the house. If there is anything extra left over, it will get sent back into the grid and you’ll get a little money for it.

Anthony

On that note, could you maybe expand a bit further on what that means for an individual when it does go back into the grid?

Ben

Most people, when you say solar they reply with: Rebate? Do I get free money? Because it is so good for the environment and lowers the cost of living day to day, the government wants people to invest in solar as much as I do.

There is a lot of jargon to get our head around. There are two big words: One is feed-in tariff or feed-in credit, and the other one is a rabte. The first one is a feed-in into the grid. You get a feed-in tariff or feed-in credit on your electricity bill for that. You get about $0.06 per kilowatt hour.

An important thing to pause and explain as well is a kilowatt hour, because a kilowatt and a kilowatt hour are not the same thing. One is a unit of energy, and one is a rate of energy. We can use water for example. A kilowatt could be a litre per second, that’s the rate at which we are creating electricity. It’s instantaneous, so we are creating one kilowatt of electricity. And then a kilowatt hour is that power multiplied by the time it’s on for, so an hour.

If we’re producing one kilowatt of electricity for a whole hour, that’s one kilowatt times one hour equals one kilowatt hour. So that’s so yeah, maybe it’s better to think of kilowatts, like liters per second and kilowatt hour is how many liters of electricity are actually produced. So for every liter you send back to the grid, you’ll get sort of 6 or 7 cents now, which isn’t as much as it used to.

But as I think we’ll talk about probably later on, I’m a big fan of monitoring and, and really being tuned into your system, so you make your money by keeping it in the bank, we say by not purchasing power from the grid, just being as self reliant as you can. Yeah, my goal actually isn’t to pump energy back into the grid for you, or for my customers, it’s to be used for yourself. Self consumption, get that as far as you can. So using your energy.

So that’s the feed-in tariff, the feed-in credits. And then the other big word, of course, is the rebates. This is why we all pay taxes, get free money from the government. And in Australia, we’re lucky enough, we’ve got three governments, federal, state and local council and two of them are giving us free money.

So the first rebate is the federal rebate. That’s called the STCs. As you said, Anthony, or, you know, what that stands for Anthony?

Anthony

No, I’m gonna lean on your wisdom here.

Ben

That’s alright. I actually didn’t know I was working for about a year before I stopped and thought “What does that actually stand for”? It’s a small technology certificate and, and so that’s just awarded to you if you put solar panels together with an inverter at the same time, and it expands along as the system size increases. So that’s why sort of going for a few extra panels is often a good idea, because the government slightly subsidises you on your way up and increasing in system size. Then the second rebate is the solar Victoria rebate here in Victoria. I think other states like South Australia have them as well. And so at the moment in the first half of 2022, because it reduces every financial year, you are  eligible for $1,400 from the state government, and for if you’re putting a PV system on, or you can’t have both of these but you can have one or the other if you’re putting a battery in and you can get $3,500 for a battery rebate so it is quite attractive, especially the battery one. A lot of people think that they’ll get batteries down the line when they get cheaper but with the rebate as high as that and dropping every financial year. Yeah, I think maybe now’s the time.

And then important, just eligibility criteria for that, while we’re here is for the state federal rebates, there’s no criteria, besides just having an inverter and being less than 100 kilowatts, which might trouble any of our customers and residential homes.

And so yeah, eligibility is the 2 people or more I guess, 2 people on the rates notice, their combined income needs to be less than $180,000 a year. And the property must be worth less than $3 million. I haven’t had one yet that’s being knocked back because of that, few people wish they were. It’s a pretty good problem to have actually.

And then the other one is you can’t have participated in the solar Victoria program before. So if you had solar semi recently, you may not be eligible. Yeah. That is the three criteria here.

Anthony

Are there any loans available for people to maybe try and reduce the upfront cost initially?

Ben 

Yeah, so there’s a couple options here. The state government will offer us with a PV, they’ll offer you $1,400 as an interest and fee free loan. And so yeah, it’s just $1,400 taken off the upfront costs, and you’ll just pay that back to the government. And it’s a direct debit. So I have a situation like $40 a month, which works out to be about three years.

And then alternatively, here at SolarPro Bendigo, we’ve got a finance partner as well, so we can put a quote for you to get that fully financed. And often, I’ve been quite amazed actually, when I put them together, it’s actually cashflow positive, like your electricity bill, your new electricity bill plus your finance repayments is actually cheaper than your electricity bill right now. So and then you just ride the wave, sure your savings are marginal, you ride that for five years, and then you just start printing money after that you pay the system off and away you go. I was just like, sure a lot of people wouldn’t know, but actually you can’t afford not to get solar.

I just turned this into an ad for you guys.

Anthony

That’s that’s what you know, that’s is those who are listening. It’s just so beneficial for them to hear that as well. Because at the end of the day, if they’re tuning in, and they’re sort of sitting there on the fence, wondering do I get solar? Or don’t I get solar? You know, that could have been all they needed to hear. So just to push them in the right direction.

Ben

Yeah, I mean, quotes a free, phone calls free. I love talking to people, a little bit too much. So yeah, the worst you can do is sort of waste a bit of your time, it won’t cost you a cent just to get an idea of what will happen.

Sandra 

While we were talking about batteries, can you maybe explain what are the upsides or the positives of getting a battery? So why would I, if I choose to put solar panels on my house, Why would I or why should I also choose to buy a battery with it?

Ben

There’s a lot of people that don’t see value in batteries, but I really do like them. They don’t have as attractive return on investment specs as a solar system by itself. But things that attract me to wanting to put a battery in my house are just day to day cash flow. So if you’ve got a $0 bill that just really makes things easy, right? So Especially if you’re going to downsize your home and retire. And you sort of drawing money from the sale of your last house or something I think it’s a great thing to spend your money on is a battery and solar system that’s going to mean that you know, when you’re retired and you are getting a weekly income from your super fund or whatever, that you don’t have an electricity bill coming out of that you’ve already covered it. You were smart when you bought the house and set yourself up really. So that’s number one, it’s day to day cash flow for me. There’s actually three. Number two I should give an honourable mention to the environment, you’ve got clean green, renewable energy, you’d be completely self sufficient. And obviously there’d be no emissions associated with that. And the third thing is that you’ve got a whole house backup, so often, if someone’s going to run into the transmission tower or something like that and bring the power down in the whole street. Often, most batteries can back up your entire house and you don’t even realise that the grid is not on because the battery kicks in and lights don’t even flicker. You just get a text message from your battery saying, Hey, I’ve got your back, my friend. And party on. Pretty exciting stuff, actually.

Anthony

So these systems I imagine are all pretty much integrated with a phone app these days, and so people are probably more acutely aware of the consumption and everything as well by having a solar system. Because I’m sure that you know, you’ve got the capacity to monitor everything now. And I mentioned the batteries do the same. Is that something that, you know, the systems that you work with, that’s the case, they all have, you know, an app sidekick that helps everyone monitor?

Ben

Yeah, absolutely, and I’m super passionate about monitoring, actually, it’s so integral, it’s so important to getting good value out of a solar system now. So like I was saying, with those 66 cents feed-in tariffs that people had 10 years ago, the monitoring didn’t matter, you could put a one kilowatt system on, it would make four kilowatt hours of electricity a day you’d go to work, you wouldn’t see any of that in your house, it would all go to the grid. At 66 cents times, four hours, four kilowatt hours, that’s $2.40, or whatever, that’s more than what you would spend on electricity that night. So you’ve covered your bill, job done. But yeah, now, that’s not the way that we deal with solar, the way to make money from solar is by not buying electricity from the grid. So it’s just being self reliant, self sufficient. And so if you don’t have a battery, in particular, monitoring is the way that you can actually just get everything out of your system. So you can have a look at your app and say, you’ll see a curve right when your solar was producing. And you’ll see a little black line when you’re using electricity, and you’ll see little spikes when dishwashers and washing machines come on. And so basically, it’s just so important that you look at that every now and again, you look back on the day, and you say, well, there’s a black spike just outside the yellow curve .

Basically the easy way to do it is anything underneath this yellow bell curve on your app. That was free, that didn’t cost you anything. So I say, people just go nuts during the middle of the day, like I put solar on my Nan’s house, because she’s just like, sitting in the cold, or sitting there sweating and not putting the aircon on. She doesn’t want to spend the money on the air conditioners, and I say Nan, this is free. There’s the on button, absolutely send it, it won’t cost you a thing. And that’s also how you make money. And like I leave my house. This is crazy. My mom would slap me if she heard this. I actually leave my house for like five hours. Leave the aircon on come back in. It’s all good. And it hasn’t cost me a cent. It’s really cool. And I can see that from the app. Super important, I think.

Sandra

Yeah, a little question that might be a very non technical stupid question. But if we’re talking about the feed-in tariff that you mentioned before, obviously, you would have to be connected to the main grid with your house, right? Like you can’t be completely off grid and feed into the system. So this is only available to people who have a solar setup, but are also connected to the normal grid, is that right?

Ben

Yeah, correct. So if you want to feed into the grid, then yeah, you’ve got to have a cable that’s connecting you to it. Most systems are grid connected systems we call it. But yeah, it’s still true. And I think we do need to transition away from thinking that we need to send electricity back into the grid, even in a grid connected situation. You can actually make the most money by using the electricity yourself in the middle of the day. And secondly, by putting it in a battery or something like that. So you can use it yourself but later on. But yeah, you can still go solar with off grid. That just means you wouldn’t send anything back to the grid, which I don’t  think is a bad thing. You put it in your batteries and use it later at night. So it’s a good way to go as well.

Sandra

This might be a great point in the conversation to start with one of our more controversial questions. So what we did before, we were chatting to people around us and collecting questions. And we don’t just want to, you know, leave out potential criticism that people could have towards solar systems. So one question we got, was that from their understanding, the person who was asking the question, the actual grid currently is not designed to have power supplied back into it by residential solar systems. Does the grid require an overhaul? Will that be redesigned? Or the question was, will companies start charging people to supply their unused power into the grid?

Ben

I love just having some discussions about this stuff. And yeah, if we don’t discuss it, we don’t learn and we don’t get anywhere. So, does the grid need to be redesigned? The answer to that is, yes. But often people blame us, they blame the solar industry for the grid needing to be redesigned. So solar isn’t the reason the grid needs to be redesigned, the reason the grid needs to be redesigned is because our current method of creating electricity is really dirty and destroying our planet. So, we have to do something anyway, we have to move away from coal power, because it’s destroying the planet, creating emissions, and all sorts of problems. And so it’s just a way of life that while we’re redesigning it anyway, and we’re looking at those solutions, we look at the solution, we look to solar, and we look to wind and how these energy sources operate. Let’s design the system around these energy sources.

 

And so there’s sort of mini sub problems within going to rely on renewable energy with solar, for example, a big problem is that all the energy is produced in the middle of the day, while a lot of people are at work. And often, there’s like, often not heaps of demand at that time. So supply can outstrip demand. So yes, we actually are redesigning the grid. And there’s a new term called a virtual power plant, wherein, eventually we will tear up a power plant like a coal powered one, split it up into 1000 homes with solar and batteries on them, and then your solar will get soaked up into all these batteries that are all connected to the grid. And then when there’s a demand, or when there’s no demand, these batteries can be triggered remotely, you opt into this, it’s not forced by any means. But you opt into this, you’ll get paid well for it, it’s 200 dollars a year for participating. All batteries can work together as one big sponge and soak up that excess in the middle of the day, and then they can release it back at night. And for the individual homeowner on a macro scale, you’re always financially better off because there’s no maintenance cost of a coal power plant anymore. So they’re paying you that money to let them access your battery and solar. So that’s a really cool thing.

And the other part of that question was, are we going to get a solar tax, that’s what we people call it, they are scared about the solar tax. They’ll start charging us to send electricity back into the grid, there’s red flags happening everywhere. That is something that power cords came out and said that they won’t be doing until 2025, I think at least. And even if they do do it, the distributor, so in our region that is Power Core or city power, they need to have a really good reason for needing that to sort of finance the redesign of the grid. Because the grid, yeah, it wasn’t really designed to have energy sources scattered throughout, it was originally just one energy source in the Latrobe Valley, and then they just carted it around the state. So there’s some cost associated with that. And so we’ve got to pay for it somehow. But yeah, you’ll always be better off like, you’ll normally make, say, $300 a year from exporting electricity to the grid, you might be taxed with $50 a year. It’s not a huge deal. And if you ask me, you should be using your app, and you shouldn’t really be exporting that much to the grid anyway, you should be getting a battery or getting an electric car or putting the dishwasher on a timer and running it during the day while you’re at work. So, that’s probably my answer to that question.

Anthony

I might just lead into another question that’s based on that, so are there any examples of homes that may not be suitable for solar moving forward? And also looking to the future?

Ben

I can’t really think of any, like, the one that comes to mind is, like, if you don’t want a battery and you’re just a super hard worker, you’re working eight till eight or something like that, then I probably wouldn’t feel good about putting solar on your home. Besides, you know, making the planet nice. So yeah, it wouldn’t be a financially good thing to do. I always do look at customer’s energy data, I look at their load profile throughout the day. And I’ve probably seen in that incidence, that all your energy usage is, you know, seven o’clock in the morning and eight o’clock at night when you get home. It could be true for people if you’re commuting to Melbourne for work. And so yeah, I have told people before, I honestly couldn’t, in good conscience, sell you a solar system. So that would be one. And the other one would just be if your roof is really, really old, and we have to drill holes in it. We lift the screws that are already there. We pull that up, put a bracket in, put the screw back in, but basically if we’re too scared that your roofs gonna leak and you’re gonna blame us for it. Yeah. So if your roof is looking bad, or you’re structurally not sure that this old weatherboard house is going to take 20 kilos per panel. That could be one. But it’s very rare that we find someone that’s not suitable. And the other one is a pressed aluminium tile. If anyone out there has any of those, I’m not sure that any installers want to be touching those, because they are notorious for getting roof leaks after solar installers have a crack at them, so we don’t really touch those anymore. They’re pretty rare.

Anthony

Yeah, leading into another question that, I suppose is, what requirements should a home have? Is there anything further to that than what you’ve just mentioned there? Or does that cover it?

Ben

Just a roof over those four walls that I can use, that would be handy. And then I guess the other one is shading. So just have a look around. There are some people that have tall trees right around their house and things like that. That would happen in a lot of places. Here in regional VIC, where people are living on 5 acres or whatever. So yeah, have a look at your house in the middle of the day. If it’s completely in the shade it’s kind of a good thing, because the house is nice and cool in summer, but you’re not going to get much solar generation from that. And I wouldn’t bother with a solar system in that case.

Anthony.

It doesn’t necessarily need to be the house either, right? It could be if there’s a shed available, or any roof space or clear, shaded area that could facilitate solar panels. I’m sure that’s okay?

Ben

Yeah, yeah, for sure, I will actually just jump in, if I can. If anyone’s listening and they’re building a house, if you’re building a shed that you want to put solar on, please give us a call, or your electrician a call. Preferably a solar electrician. Because the cable that connects your house to your shed has to be the right size, if you just go for the cheapest shed you can find. And the cable run is part of the shed deal, it might not be big enough to actually export solar back to the grid. So just give us a call first. So we can size that up for you and make sure it’s done riight. And we’re not digging a $3,000 trench to fix it.

Sandra

$3,000 is another good segway into talking maybe a little bit about the costs of solar. So we’ve talked about what kind of money you can get back if you decide to feed back into the grid. But how much will it cost me to put a solar system on my house? And what is the pay fo overtime of an average home?

Ben

I sort of hate saying this, but we’ll go with a 6.6 kilowatt system. That’s the number in the solar industry. I’d love to know why. But is is what it is anyway, that’s what most people install, a 6.6 kilowatt solar system on their houses.

Sandra

Can you maybe quickly explain what that means?

Ben

Yeah, so that’s talking about the wattage of the solar panels combined on your roof. So if you had three so many watt panels, and we have 18 of them together, it’s 6,660 watts or 6.6 kilowatts, a kilowatt being 1000 watts. And then that’s often paired with a five kilowatt inverter. So we do oversize the panels to the inverter, which is good, just because we don’t have full sunlight all the time. So if we have 80% sunlight, but we’ve got 130% oversizing of our inverter, then we can still get that five kilowatt output that we’re hoping for. So yeah, that’s a really popular system. A lot of people probably don’t need that much solar, to be honest, they’re just exporting it to the grid and not getting much for it. And some people need more, you’ve got swimming pools, electric cars, big split systems, and things like that. But nevertheless, that seems to be the most popular one that I’m seeing. If you type solar in Google once, 6.6 kilowatt ads will haunt you forevermore. So if we run with that, I’ll be that cookie cutter designer that I have to be and yeah, so a 6.6 kilowatt solar system is usually anywhere from $5,000 to $7,000. It depends on the quality of the products that you go for. It’s like everything you can buy. If you’re looking for a car, you only need something that has got four wheels and an engine but there’s different things that you can look at to make it work better for your needs. We recommend different products in different situations and different warranty periods, different manufacturing standards. So yeah, $5,000 to $7,000 is the number people.

Sandra

And talking about batteries. How much would people have to pay for a battery system on top of the solar panels?

Ben

Our most popular batteries are the Tesla Powerwall. So that’s about $15,500 at the moment. And then when we apply the rebate to that, then we come down $3,500 which brings us back to sort of $12,000 ish. But obviously, that’s sort of like a cookie cutter perfect, everything’s in the right place, you know. But if we’re running cables to the other end of the suburb and bits and pieces like that, then obviously, there’s additional costs with that. And there are lots of strict regulations about where we can put a battery as well. The Australian standards are quite strict for our safety. So there’s certain rooms they are not allowed to back onto and they’ve got to be 600mm away from things and a 900mm clearance above. Sometimes we might need to put it in a spot that’s not preferable, which means running a cable. Anyway, it’s like everything with you guys as well, everything’s case by case. We design everything for the customer. Don’t hold me to that quote, please.

Anthony

I sort of see, and correct me if I’m misguided here, but I see Tesla as a really high quality product. Are there more entry level battery options as well, for people?

Ben

Yeah. So, the Tesla actually is quite a big battery as well, 13,5 kilowatt hours. Or if we go back to the litres of electricity, it’s quite a lot. So I mean, it’s good for a lot of people. So if you got sort of, I’ll put that in the ballpark of like two adults, two or three kids. But if it’s just two people by themselves, you’re probably not going to get great use out of the full 13,5 kilowatt hour. So yeah, we have a little Australian RedBack battery that we like here. The thing I like about this one is, and there’s another one called a BYD, is that it’s smaller. It’s got modules of batteries inside it. So I can scale it up and down, based on what I think you need. And also, it’s got a hybrid inverter built into it. So with the Tesla, it has its own inverter built into the battery, but then you still need a solar inverter as well. Whereas a hybrid is your solar inverter and your battery inverter together. So if you’re doing it right the first time, and you know you want to get a battery up front, you can save, you know, $1000 to $2,000 because you’ve only needed one inverter there as well, it looks neat, and it saves you money, it’s actually slightly more efficient, as well. So we’ve got a little RedBack that we quite like. It comes in quite a good price. And you just plug the solar panels directly into it. So I’m a big fan of that. And the other shout out I’ll just give for three phase people, if you’ve got three phase power to your home, and the Tesla Powerwall, as much as I love it, it’s like the Rolls Royce for single phase homes. If you want full home backup, you will need the BYD and Fronius changeman 4 inverter to backup all three phases of your home, which basically means like people don’t know what that is, which was me not too long ago. The phase is kind of just like, most people just have one or the cable running around their house powering everything and three phase just means that you’ve got three cables. So your loads are split up on the different cables. And the Powerwall can only sort of touch one of them at a time. Whereas the BYD and Gen 24 from Fronius can power all at once. When there’s no grid, it makes it good.

Anthony

We’ve talked with RedBack in the past, you know. G, talking about a passionate group of people. You know, they were super helpful and just dedicated to their products. So it was cool to chat with them. So, you mentioned the price for the Tesla battery, after rebate. What would you expect from a RedBack?

Ben

A RedBack comes in at about seven kilowatt hours, I think. And it’s about half the price. I think it’s about $7,000 or $8,000 from memory. Yeah. And that becomes quite attractive when you’re putting solid directly into it. Because it’s just an efficient way to go about it.

Anthony

And that’s after rebate, that sort of price you’ve indicated or we still would apply that?

Ben

Yeah, that’s after rebate. The only hesitation with the RedBack is its backup power isn’t as good. So it can only supply a certain amount of current, which is not quite as high as that Tesla Powerwall that can backup an entire home, no worries. The RedBack’s more just sort of just your kitchen lighting and Internet, and like the power circuit. So you can plug your laptop or your phone in.

Sandra

And how do I determine beforehand how big of a system I need? Or is that something that you could advise people on?

Ben

Yeah. Definitely don’t buy a solar system unless someone’s actually had a look at your situation. So what will happen is, Sandra, if you came to me and said I wanted to buy a solar system, I’d be like, That’s awesome. But let’s figure out what size it should be. So I’ll get a copy of your electricity bill. That’s got two numbers on it, that I just type into power cords website. I can actually jump in and have a look at your energy data. So if you’re sleeping in the morning, I’ll know because I’ll see what time the coffee machine goes on. So I’ll have a look what time you’re using your energy throughout the day. Then I can zoom out and look at your year as well. But the key one for me is to just pick an average day in sort of September, October.

And then have a look at your daily load profile and design your system from there. So if you’re using about 20 kilowatt hours of electricity per day, then I would say you need, we got about four hours of sunlight a day, you probably need about a five kilowatt inverter to sort of cover that need, that is the old rule. But yeah, with the changing landscape, I’d like to get a bit more complicated than that. But I want bore the listeners with the ins and outs of it. So I’ll get your data essentially. And then I’ll tell you, based on how much electricity you’re using, I’m going to provide you with the same amount for free over the next couple of years. And usually the system will pay for itself in about three to five, six years.

I’m very interested in investing and finance and things like that. And normally the return on cash is 25% or 30% a year. So, if you invested $5,000 in the ASX 200 index, the average return for that is 7% a year, top 200 companies in Australia, and here I am with a solar system that’s doing 25%. Pretty crazy.

Anthony

Can we touch on off grid systems? That is something that we do talk about quite a lot. We have a lot of clients in rural settings where they’re usually coming from a financial perspective to begin with, you know, they’ve got a cost to connect to mains, it could vary from $50,000 to $150,000 to get connection to the main supply. So in those situations, they generally turn pretty quick to ask the question of what’s an off grid solar system going to cost us and what does that look like?

Ben

That’s a popular one that we hear as well. Yeah, around the $30,000 mark, for connecting to mains is probably where I’d be like, I’m not really sure, you could go either way. Definitely, I would say at $50,000 to connect to the grid, knowing you’re going to be paying $1.20 a day for the privilege of being connected to the grid every day for the rest of your life. $50,000 would be the point where I’d say it’s a no brainer to go with an off grid system because they are normally around, I think… It depends on so many factors like what you’re running, how many people, how big is the house, so many things. But yeah, around like $60,000 maybe $50,000 can get you an off grid system, I believe. I am not an off grid specialists, we have got an off grid electrician that handles that here, but I think that’s roughly in the ballpark.

Anthony

We quite often find that that’s usually the outcome, that once they weigh out the other benefits of being completely self sufficient in their power supply for the home, then the off grid becomes the preference, if we look from a sustainable perspective, or other reasons.

Sandra

I need to play the devil’s advocate, again, I got another more critical question when it comes to the pricing. We’ve heard from people around us that the quotes and the numbers that are being said from solar technicians vary pretty greatly. Our colleagues’ parents got 4 quotes from solar technicians, when they were renovating their house, and they got 4 different answers in regards to what kilowatt rating they need and components to get and all that stuff. And that made it really difficult for them to make an informed decision, because they were getting so much different input. Is that something that you’ve experienced in the industry as well? And what would be the explanation as to why these could vary so greatly?

Ben

Interesting. I haven’t actually heard of too many people that have been super overwhelmed with different sizes as well. But there definitely is some variance, I’ll try and shed some light on what can be happening, I guess. The first part is the kilowatt ratings. That’s just the size of the system. So, how many panels you need, how much electricity do you need. The other part is the components of the system that drives up the cost as well. So as I was saying before, the size of your system, or kilowatt ratings, should be directly linked to your usage. So you should be able to call up the person selling you the system and say, “Why do you think that’s the right size system for me?” They should be looking at your energy data, as well, seeing what time you use your energy, what your energy is at different times of the year. So in winter, you’ll use more electricity, and you’ll also have less sunlight. So you got to think about that as well. What’s your peak demand, the highest loads and things like that. You got a welder you want to be covered. And we might need oversize for that.

If they don’t have an explanation, then you really need to be asking questions about that company. But in addition to that, in my defense, I actually look at your data, but then also stray from it. If I looked at your data from that example before, on paper, if you’re using 20 kilowatt hours a day, a six kilowatt system would be fine, but I also take the time to sit down and actually get to know the customer. If you tell me that you’re putting in a pool, you’re going to buy a new split system air conditioner, and you’ve got a Tesla on the way, or any electric car, then your energy is going to increase a lot from what I’m seeing on your data at the moment. And it is important. Everything’s becoming electric, your lawnmower will be electric, the next one you’ll buy. So many things are becoming more electric, it’s good to allow for future room to grow. If you don’t have kids, yet, kids are going to leave the light on all the time and not know about it. I like to allow a bit of room for growth as well. But I’m always honest and upfront, and say look, the data says this, this is what I would recommend just to be future proof, because it is a bit expensive to come back. If you want to add to your solar system, you’ve got to buy a second inverter as well as just panels. So it is cheaper to just do it right the first time. That’s why we do that. But yeah, just ask them, quiz them, get to know what they’re doing. And try to get them to sit down and spend some time with you on the sizing. That’d be why there’s some variance there. The other part is the components. I think like everything in life, there is a spectrum of price and quality, you do get what you pay for. And that’s certainly true here. I mean, Anthony, you’ve probably got different manufacturers of double glazed windows that you could source from. They all let light into the room, I would hope. Some are cheaper than others, but they don’t all perform as well, right? Some will have a higher u-value, not resisting any heat and you might as well leave the door open. It’s the same with cars. We can buy all sorts of different cars, and they’ll all get us from A to B. But some are going to actually carry the things that we need and some aren’t. Some are going to break down because we’re loading them up too high and they’re not gonna be able to tow our caravans and things like that. A big one that drives up costs for us is our Fronius inverter. We often do come in more expensive than our competitors, because we’re actually selling better products and that is something we believe in, that helps us sleep at night, knowing that we’re not going to get 1000 phone calls tomorrow from people that have got cheap products that are dying in the heat and not coping. Fronius inverter is made in Austria, the company is like 100 years old, it’s been in Australia for 10 years now. If you compare that to a Chinese made inverter, it’s like $1,000 more, you know, in a $5,000 or $6,000 system, it’s a fair chunk of money. But we do have our reasons for going for Fronius. 90% of our instals are Fronius, because it gives us great data for monitoring. I can look after you as the fleet manager. I had a customer just the other week. I was checking his systems, every week I go through and check people’s production curves. And I was like, G, why is it all over the place. It’s not looking right. And then Fronius actually gives me everything that’s going on around it. So I looked at the different channels of information I had, and it turns out the grid voltage was too high. The inverter was shutting off to protect itself. So I called Power Core and got them out and they fixed the grid voltage on that guy’s street. And then the next day the inverter was working fine. And I didn’t have to get off my chair and charge him a $250 Call out fee to figure out what’s going on. So that’s a pretty cool thing as well. Fault notifications like that are so important.

And the other thing about Fronius is they’re based in Tullamarine. If we do need to replace your inverter, it’s an hour and a half by freight to send it there, and then you get a new one. So it’s really good. I could go on and on and on.

Anthony

I could not think of anything more important than powering your home. So for that fee, I don’t see that as a substantial difference. I just see that as a no brainer. I don’t know how much it might suck to sit in high or mid 30-40 degree weather without power.

Ben

Yeah, especially if you’re going off grid. There’s no backup plan. So you really got to make sure you got the right stuff there. They often have the same warranty period. So we have a Chinese inverter and our Fronius inverter with the same 10 year warranty, but it’s no good to you if it’s on the wall for a month or two. while we’re organising your replacement. I’d rather go for the one that I’m confident is going to long outlast the warranty period.

Sandra

What is the average lifespan of a solar system? What can I expect if I put a new system on my house? How often does it need replacing? Does it need replacing at all? Does it need maintenance in between?

Ben

Our standard sort of mid range solar panels come with a 15 year warranty. But we have two options for a 25 year product warranty. If you’re going for a high quality product, you could be getting 30 to 40 years out of your solar system. If you’re in your forever home, I would really encourage that we just go for that. Do it once. Do it right and never touch it again. Technology has come a long way and they really are bulletproof. If you’re in a house for 40 years, the one thing you will have to change over at some point is your inverter. All inverters that I know have a 10 year warranty. It is a piece of electronic equipment. So it will be like a laptop and batteries and you know, things like that. They wear and tear and it’s in your garage or it’s outside. So, a 10 year product warranty with the Fronius. We are expecting that to last around 15 years, the newer ones that came out in 2015. They’re still going strong, all the ones that were installed back in 2015. No signs of letting up anytime soon. They’re actively cooled. I definitely wouldn’t say with any confidence that they’re going to last 20 or 30 years, I think you’d have to replace those around that 15 year mark, maybe right on the 10 year mark for the cheaper ones. But again, that’s probably like $1,000 to $2,000 to get that replaced.

The other thing is servicing. Just get them checked every sort of two years, I’d recommend. Just to make sure that all the cabling is all in good condition, there hasn’t been any water that’s gone in anywhere or anything like that. Just good to keep an eye on it.

Sandra 

Maybe diving a little bit into the sustainability aspect of solar panels. That’s one of the major reasons why people get solar. It’s not just about the cost. It’s also about getting a product that you feel good about. But again, playing devil’s advocate, with the cost of mining for the materials, the lithium that you’ve mentioned, and all the other components, and the environmental and monetary influences that play a role as well. Again, obviously, depending on where you get the product from, but are solar panels overall beneficial for the environment, or does the production of them actually outweigh the benefits?

Ben

Great question and bit of a spicy one that I’ve heard and tried to explain to people before. I’ve studied sustainable systems engineering. So trying to engineer solutions for mankind that are actually holistic and thinking about circular economy and recycling and end of life. I actually did a final project of my degree that was about the lifecycle of solar panels and their recycling at the end of their life. First of all, it is great that we’re asking this question, because, I’ve actually learned that as a western society, we have a history of what we call Band Aid solutions. So, you know, for transport for example, we had the old horse and cart and then the horses started dying by the side of the road, from pulling around all our things and bits and pieces. So then we went to wood fired steam engines, but then we were running out of wood. So then we’d like, Okay, well, we’ll have coal powered steam engines. And now here we are. And we’re like, oh, we’re kind of choking the planet with this. So we should do something else. Let’s go to solar. And it’s natural to think that maybe that’s just another band aid solution with its own problems. But thankfully, we have learned some lessons over the couple of 100 years of history that I just brushed up on then.

I have actually studied what’s called a life cycle assessment. So you’re looking at the environmental impacts throughout the lifecycle. And for a solar panel, normally, let’s just use numbers that I’ll sort of make up, let’s just say it requires all the mining, manufacturing and all that, let’s just say for one panel, it’s about 900 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions. That panel in its first year will create enough electricity to offset 300 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions. So in three years, normally two to three years, it saved enough emissions to match its production, its manufacturing and mining and things like that. So it’s actually really similar to the financial aspect. In about three years, it’s paid for itself, in carbon and in dollars and cents. So yes, it checks out everybody, it’s all aboveboard.

Sandra 

Another question that just popped into my head. If everyone, let’s say in Australia, would change to solar tomorrow. Is that a solution that would work? I think a lot of people are wondering, does it bring enough energy to power all of Australia? We were talking about a residential perspective. Obviously, there is a more industrial manufacturing perspective as well, that demands a lot more energy. Is there a solution for that? Or is that something that needs to be sorted out in the future?

Ben

I think we should go big in solar, we should go hard and go heavy with it. I think they should just put it up everywhere. And there’s now robots that roll out solar farms, it’s pretty crazy. We’re getting good at rolling out solar, especially up in the northern territory and things like that. I don’t think it will be the be all and end all solution to the whole of Australia. We’re never going to have enough solar power to power our steel manufacturers and the big boys like that. We’re going to have to get green hydrogen or biomethane, or something different to do that. But don’t let perfect be the enemy. I think just do as much as you can. I think solar and batteries will get us all a long way to where we want to be. But it’s still a lot to do if we want to completely offset our mining. But you know, on the other hand, we don’t have to fully offset our mining because our minds are providing us with copper for electric cars, which don’t produce emissions compared to our combustion engines. And their mining isn’t all bad luckily. I think we just need to go as hard as we can. But just because we can never achieve 100%, doesn’t mean that we should just stop installing solar panels. There has got to be a holistic solution. There’s other things that go alongside solar, like batteries and biogas and wind. Solar isn’t the only way to do it. I think we’ve all got to work together in the renewable industry and create a clean future and it’s super exciting actually. I love reading about all this stuff. A lot is happening.

Sandra 

I think maybe now’s a good time to ask, what do you think is the future of solar? Where do you see solar energy evolving or developing into in the future?

Ben 

It’s anyone’s guess. A year is like seven years in the solar industry. Things move very fast. And it’s a full time job, trying to keep up with all the new technology, but I think I touched on virtual power plants earlier. I think they’re crucial. So the virtual power plant thing… All your batteries are connected to the grid and they’ll work as one to release energy and soak it up as required. I think a level up from that is when you take your electric car and you plug it into what’s called a bi-directional inverter. It goes two ways, so you can charge your car but also charge your house and power the grid. So because your car has a big battery in it. It’s an electric car. And so a vehicle to grid sort of virtual power plant, I think that could really solve our issues. If you imagine us saying we have way too much electricity produced in the middle of the day, and often not enough demand for it. If everyone’s got their cars plugged in at their office at work, and they just soak up this electricity from the roof of their office or their warehouse or wherever they are, then they can just drive home, plug the car into their house and power their house for free, then all that energy is being distributed. And so electric cars, I think, and being connected into the grid, could be really cool. If we can get that technology happening. And then just batteries. Batteries are still in their infancy in terms of being adopted. But we’re really seeing in the last couple of months… Not many people call me up just asking for a solar system anymore, they want a battery as well. So batteries are super popular, and they’ll only get more to sort of stabilise the grid.

The actual solar technology, who knows what will happen with that. But I think that’s pretty stable, as well. But you can always get little bits and pieces that come along that make things cool. We’ve got new monitoring software called solar Analytics, which has changed the game in terms of being able to do heaps of things. It can now have a look at your energy usage based on how much you export to the grid and how much you use or say, Hey, if you switch to this energy retailer, I can tell you exactly how much you’d save. It’s completely unique to you. So it makes it really easy, because these plans are becoming hard for us humans to compare. So that’s a really cool thing.

Sandra

You were saying that people are asking more and more about batteries. What are the other common questions that you get asked by your clients? What are some of the myths or ideas they come to you with that you would like to clear up once and for all, because you have to explain it every single time. Now’s your chance.

Ben

I’ll start with the myths. A big myth is, I’ve mentioned it a couple times, that our solar isn’t worth it anymore, because the feed-in tariffs are way less. It used to be 60 on our system. So maybe just scrub back to my answer on that. But basically just use the energy itself and it will save way more. Would you rather get six cents for sending it into the grid or save 26 by not buying it from the grid? So definitely just be a bit smarter about that. Yeah, the other one is that batteries are too expensive. There’s this big thing in the industry, that people are going, batteries are too expensive, it’s not worth it. I’ll wait until they get cheaper, like batteries are going to get cheaper. In the last year, you guys probably know better than anyone, but everything is actually going up in the last year. Wood, steel. Everything’s gone up 30%. I don’t see why lithium would continue to go too much further down. So actually, if you Google lithium prices over time, you’ll see it’s just done a big sort of arc down and sort of flattening out now. It’s actually never been cheaper. And the rate of decline is decreasing. I hope that made sense. So it’s not going to get cheaper very quickly. So we actually are at the perfect spot to do it. And the rebates are also reducing every year, so you want to jump in now while the rebate is still $3,500 and make the most of it. So that’s the other one.

Most common questions are the rebates, which we’ve been through. Often I get asked, Can I get a quote for a 6.6 kilowatt system, please? My response is why?

What’s the thought behind that? You live by yourself mate, I don’t think you need that much power. Warranties, which I think we’ve touched on as well. So 10 years for an inverter, 15 to 25 years for your panels. And I love when I hear this question, it means they’re excited. How long do I have to wait for it to install? In America, I think I was reading it’s three months or four to six months. It’s a very long time. There’s lots of paperwork over there, but we are quite good here. We can get you installed from sale to invoice in sort of like four weeks. So it’s pretty fast.

Sandra 

I have one more question. And that’s kind of combining our two worlds. Solar panels for houses. There are some people who are going in the other direction and are saying, Well, if I have a solar system on my house, why would I need insulation? Why would I need double glazed windows? Because I can just run the air conditioner, I can just run the heating the whole time. It doesn’t cost me anything. So maybe for you, Anthony, what’s an answer to that question that you would give?

Anthony

Well, for me, I think I look at solar as it’s just part of this holistic solution to creating a comfortable, healthy, and durable home. It might tick a few of the boxes in response to those things such as energy efficiency, may not tick comfortable unless you’re going to have an air conditioning or an auxiliary mechanical heating and cooling device in every room that you’re living in. But it certainly starts to play with the healthy aspect as well. By having solar panels, it won’t prevent a reduction of air quality internally, that’s for sure. If you’ve got some moisture issues in your bathroom. And mould growth. So to me, I see it as part of the overall, as opposed to being the one solution to not having to worry about those things.

Ben

I’ll just add on top of that. I had a customer who had just a standard new build home and had this massive add on refrigerant air conditioning system, and I looked at the sticker on it, and it draws 4.6 kilowatts of electricity. The standard solar inverter is five kilowatts, so it’s like a typical solar system for that guy would just cover his air conditioner. And if you could create a house that doesn’t need that much cooling, then you could actually save money by getting a small solar system. This guy had to get like a 10 kilowatt solar system because you need the house plus an air conditioner, which is a huge load. So, get a cheaper solar system if it doesn’t need to do as much.

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