WOLLONGONG, Australia — I recently moved back here to my home country partly because I believe Australians can show the world how much money households can save through simple climate solutions like rooftop solar
How is it that Australia, a country that historically has been a coal-burning climate pariah, is leading the world on solar? The four-bedroom house we recently bought provides a hint: It came with two rooftop solar systems of 11 kilowatts of combined capacity and a battery with 16 kilowatt-hours of storage. This system should produce more than enough to power my family’s home, one electric car and both of our electric bikes with some left over to send back to the grid.
Solar is now so prevalent in Australia that over a quarter of households here have rooftop panels, compared with roughly 2.5 percent of American households.
Australia pays its solar installers salaries comparable to those in the United States, and it buys most of its solar modules from China at 25 cents per watt, just a little less than what American buyers pay. Our houses are mostly detached single-family, like America, too. But unlike in the United States, it’s easy to get permits and install rooftop solar in Australia.
Australia’s rooftop solar success is a function party of luck, partly of design. In the early 1990s, regulators considered rooftop solar a hobby, and no one stood in the way of efforts to make the rules favorable to small-scale solar. Looking for a good headline to varnish over Australia’s refusal to agree to the same greenhouse emissions reductions as the rest of the world in the 1997 Kyoto climate agreement, the federal government embraced renewable energy policies that set the stage for rooftop solar. Households were given rebates for the upfront costs, and were paid to send excess electricity back to the grid. In 2007, Prime Minister John Howard doubled the rebate, a move that is credited with kick-starting a solar installation boom.
Why has America been significantly slower to adopt this solution to high energy costs? The failures are mostly regulatory: local building codes and zoning laws, state rules that govern the grid connection and liability issues.
Permitting can take as little as a day in Australia and is done over the web; in the United States permitting and connecting to the grid can take as long as six months. Many customers just give up. America also generally requires a metal conduit around the wiring; in Australia, the connections can be less expensive soft cables, similar to extension cords.
The climate, and the world, are changing. What challenges will the future bring, and how should we respond to them?
The cost of rooftop solar in the United States depends on many things, including the latitude, tree cover and federal and state incentives. Installation costs can also vary quite a bit, depending on what laborers charge and the local permitting and inspection policies.
My friend Andrew Birch, co-founder of the solar and solar software companies OpenSolar in Sydney and Sungevity in the United States, wrote an excellent critique of American rooftop solar and its high price in 2018. Mr. Birch then created a consortium that worked with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to make a free tool called SolarAPP+, or Solar Automated Permitting Process. That user-friendly process could now be adopted by any willing city. Solar could be faster to install tomorrow.
The policy prescriptions for the United States are straightforward: simplify regulations and promote fair access to the grid, allowing every generator, big or small, to connect as equals and supply electricity and battery storage without burdensome connection rules.
According to my calculations, more than half of the energy needed to run America’s cars and households could be generated on the roofs of its households. Some states are moving in the right direction: In April, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida protected solar incentives by blocking legislation that would have slashed “net metering,” which allows solar customers to sell excess power to utilities. California, however, is considering taxing residential solar customers connected to the grid, the opposite of the kind of policy that’s needed.
On Monday, the Biden administration took a significant step toward increasing solar capacity by issuing an executive order that will use the Defense Production Act to produce more clean energy appliances and solar cells. He also announced a two-year suspension of tariffs for solar panels from four countries to support faster adoption of solar energy. With support for training, this means hundreds of thousands of new jobs in solar installation.
But the administration could do even more: Through an executive order, it could expand its efforts to encourage cities to use SolarAPP+ as the permitting process, further inducing a surge in solar installations.
If a regulatory world existed where you could run an American electric pickup truck on Australian rooftop solar, it would cost 2 cents per mile, rather than the current 20 cents per mile using gasoline or diesel. When solar is used to run a hot water heater with a heat pump, my calculations show, it can cut the cost of a shower by half compared to a gas heater. Even boiling water for a cup of coffee comes in at a quarter the price when compared to using natural gas.
Rooftop solar alone can’t solve climate change. We will still need wind, industrial solar farms, hydroelectricity and probably nuclear power. But rooftop solar could make the entire energy system cheaper in America forever. The more solar we put on roofs, the fewer fields and wild spaces we need to cover with large-scale installations. Australia has shown the world the way to cheap, renewable energy, and the United States needs to head toward that same all-electrified future.
Saul Griffith is the author of “Electrify,” and the founder and chief scientist of Rewiring America, Rewiring Australia and Otherlab.
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