KEITH MITCHELSON: Becoming a rooftop superpower

Jun 8, 2022
Rooftop Solar Panels
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Our household rooftop solar panel network helps fulfil international commitments of the Australian government, yet it also represents a hidden taxation that citizens do not seem to recognise. Can the new Labor government rectify this and other larger taxation anomalies?

Taxes take many forms. In times past, Scotland had a ‘window tax’ which induced citizens to brick up windows to avoid payments. Maggie Thatcher also introduced a ‘poll tax’ to Scotland which resulted incouncil tenements paying thousands because of their multitude of occupants, whilst nearby mansions with few occupants paid mere pounds. Both taxes resulted in citizen revolts.

Australians do not seem to recognise some taxes imposed by devious governments. Just a week ago, an electioneering Coalition trumpeted the magnificent achievement of Australia in fulfilling aspects of the Paris climate accords. Some $35 billion of installed roof-top solar was claimed as Australia’s premier contribution –– in part fulfilment of government mandated agreements. This was an egregious overstatement, but you get the idea.

Whilst glorying in ‘we have the world’s highest per capita roof-top solar’ – the spokesman did not mention that individual householders had installed solar panels principally at their own expense. So, Australian households are effectively paying a house tax (not dissimilar to the poll and window taxes of Scotland) to give bragging rights for achieving Australian government policies. What a con, what a monstrous tax on the desire of Australians to contribute to their nation playing good-global citizen in cutting global warming.

Notably, the $35 billion was paid by some Australians, by those house-holders who could afford the upfront payment for their system. Many lower income families simply cannot afford it, and are unlikely to ever have low-cost solar power to reduce their power bills, or reduce emissions. Our magnificent per capita achievement is only a fraction of what Australian roofs could achieve if government had been serious about diversified solar electricity for Australia’s power generation.

The Coalition government had also proposed to charge households for the export of solar electricity back into the grid, to offset costs for handling such inputs. This idea was another ‘solar tax’ intended to dissuade against the uptake of new rooftop solar, and possibly another example of Coalition support of continuing coal-generated power.

I sincerely hope the new Labor government, which professes plans to turn Australia into a solar energy super-power, will examine the entire concept, costs and pricing of a national rooftop scheme. To achieve full potential from millions of diversified rooftops, it must solve the electrical engineering associated with putting power from roofs back into the grid, and the related issue of longer-term power-storage. It should be a fully-funded national scheme, not one which relies on well-meaning individuals to build at their own expense, and then demand they fund its increased utility.

There is no basis for arguing that a fully funded roof-top scheme is not in a government’s remit to provide, as it would give valuable hardware to individuals for ‘free’. For the past three years (and possibly continuing until 2024), the late Coalition government has been giving gas-guzzling cars for free exclusively to small-businesses and tradies under a business-tax depreciation write-off worth maybe up to some $60 billion, (and releasing more carbon into the atmosphere too). This was a pre-2022 election bribe for votes, which no-one seemed to notice.

Some might feel that I overbake these ideas. That some house-holders simply want to reduce their household electricity bills by paying upfront – typically 3 to 6 years upfront – before the cost of the system is recovered and full benefits of cheap electricity are realised.

If this is the case, then why did the previous Coalition minister Josh Frydenberg claim our rooftop solar as a government achievement? He claimed it because his government had no other identifiable carbon reduction measures he could point to that the international community would believe – the only real achievement for Australia was paid for by millions of householders, businesses, and solar farms.

This absence of any other real reduction achievements points to the enormous problems Anthony Albanese’s Labor government will inherit, which impede the restoration of Australia’s reputation as a reliable world citizen. As recently as March 2022, UN Secretary António Guterres criticised the Morrison renewable energy legacy as ’grossly inadequate’.

The carbon-mitigation schemes, carbon-capture schemes and tree-regrowing schemes which Morrison brought to COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland were each fictitious cover stories designed by the fossil fuel mining industry to obscure their continuously increasing carbon emissions, which actually cancel any emissions reduction due to household solar cutting into coal-fired electricity generation. The new Labor government must create new schemes which by demonstrable science actually reduces emissions. But how to get industry compliance for a complete change in direction, without creating a almighty clash of cultures and a disruption of momentum.

One aspect of government ability to control of these mock green-washing schemes is through the grants given to companies. We are paying for fake schemes under which these companies can keep releasing carbon, while being told falsely they are ‘offsetting emissions’. Australia also still has the world’s second highest per capita coal-fired electricity generation, four-times the global average.

Additionally, massive government subsidies are provided for exploration, for extraction, to off-set high urban fuel-prices, to compensate off-road fuel users, and to keep refineries open. These taxpayer-funded gifts total some $ 200 billion and should be used in negotiating with fossil-fuel companies for them to transition their activities to renewable energy.

The Coalition government subsidised fossil fuel companies just to underwrite Australian employment in the sector – They continually told voters they supported jobs, jobs, jobs – but there were absolutely no other benefits for the country – we did not receive any taxes, nor resource rents, nor tenement lease payments back from companies despite them making over $130 billion in profit – none at all!

Details that international energy companies pay minimal or no Australian taxes on profits, and then ship their windfall earnings overseas has been reported in an ATO study that found ‘four of the five members of the Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association (APPEA) (Arrow Energy, Australia-Pacific LNG, Chevron and ExxonMobil) paid no income tax for at least the past seven years’, despite a combined Australian income of $138 billion. And this limited ATO investigation only uncovered a fraction of the taxes avoided by international energy and mining companies.

These industry perks are not just issues because of the enormous amounts of money that they cost us. These companies pursue continuously growing profit across the planet, and despite 50 years of UN reports on the existential threat to human existence of global carbon emissions, these industries refuse to accept any reduction in their fossil-fuel activities.

But there is a solution – we can redirect the subsidies completely to a renewable future. Not a redirection from companies per se, rather a redirection towards the activities needed to stop global warming. We actually need the engineering skills, business acumen and relational reach of the international fossil-fuel companies to be working entirely for the carbon-free future too.

We must make all subsidies available only for building and running renewable-energy-related industry. All subsidies for extracting, refining, consumption of fossil fuels should be cancelled. All support for the fake remediation schemes and land greening projects so favoured by the late Coalition government should cease. Redirected subsidies will also reduce the cost of renewable energy, whilst revealing the true high cost of fossil fuels, and stimulate consumers to switch.

Keith Mitchelson has a 40-year experience in academic and commercial biotechnology sectors in the UK, China, and Australia.

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