Australians are stocking up on renewable energy storage in response to the global COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. In a new press release, a solar firm in New South Wales called Smart Energy reports a 400 percent increase in customer inquiries in the last two weeks, reflecting public panic over shortages and any hypothetical changes to infrastructure during a global crisis.
Is this something novel? Well, Smart Energy sells storage solutions for renewable energy, and in that sense, itâ€™s novel for the general public to rush to stock up on solar panelsâ€”usually the province of people who either want to go â€śoff the gridâ€ť or want to be prepared to go off the grid. But in a way, customers who are afraid something will happen to their grid are making preparations, too. They just want to be able to switch the lights back on if something happens to the official channels.
The fact that this is solar energy is also novel. Some private citizens, along with essential facilities like hospitals, have always kept diesel or battery generators as the go-to backup power source. For a solar generator to be a viable backup option, people must be able to access reliable sunshine and have a way to store collected energy for overnight or overcast use. As with vehicles, there are even hybrid options that combine diesel and solar.
Diesel generators might not have the best optics in 2020, but theyâ€™re efficient and reliable in an emergency and have served for decades. For solar to begin making progress into dieselâ€™s market share is a big deal, but Australia also has more developed solar resources than almost anywhere else in the world. New South Wales, where Smart Energy is based, offers an energy incentive for residents who go solar. In December, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that â€śmore than 2 million of the nation’s 13 million homes [are] fitted with panels.â€ť
Could the U.S. follow Australiaâ€™s lead into solar, during a crisis or otherwise? Well, weâ€™ve also surpassed 2 million households with solarâ€”but thatâ€™s out of 128 million. Itâ€™s over 15 percent of Australian homes, and about 1.6 percent of American homes. The U.S. also has a federal tax credit for people who install solar panels, but the domestic solar industry has been gutted by a tariff that President Donald Trump issued by proclamation in 2018.
In December, The Hill reported that this tariff has cost more than 60,000 U.S. jobs, because aspiring solar panel companies here could not afford the high cost to bring in the materials they need to manufacture panels. Thatâ€™s after the U.S. companies that lobbied hardest for the tariffsâ€”one firm technically German and the other technically Chineseâ€”had both already closed up shop in the time since the tariff went into effect.
Industry experts still predict a rapid increase of U.S. solar share, where the first million homes took 40 years and the next million took just three. Indeed, the U.S. could follow Australiaâ€™s example and end up redistributing unused home solar back into the grid, subsidizing homeowner costs and reducing overall reliance on backup power options like coal plants. And in the immediate future, the vast majority of those solar panels will come from China.