Barnett’s solar backdown – how it happened

Within the space of four days the solar sector managed to get WA Premier Colin Barnett to overrule his treasurer, and reverse a budget decision to halve the 40 cent feed-in tariff for 75,000 existing owners of solar PV. 

It was a powerful illustration of how industry and community groups can mobilise a large grassroots supporter base to defend policy support for solar PV.  And it carries a strong message to a future Abbott government that it will need to tread carefully in seeking to change the Renewable Energy Target legislation.

On Thursday the WA government handed down its budget, which announced it would cut the 40 cent feed-in tariff five years earlier than promised, dropping it to 20 cents per kilowatt-hour. 

But on Monday Premier Barnett announced:

“Quite simply, we got this decision wrong and we have to fix it. …We have listened, and we appreciate the commitment that many people have made to take up renewable energy, like solar power.”

Yet on the morning prior to that announcement Treasurer Troy Buswell told the press:

“From my point of view, the budget decisions have been made and we are now moving on and focusing on implementing them.”

How the sector achieved such a spectacular turnaround reflects the growing level of sophistication and power the solar industry now possesses. They have managed to mount three successful campaigns in NSW, Queensland and now Western Australia to prevent policy changes that would have harmed the interests of solar PV owners.

How it all unfolded provides a template in lobbying organisation that the sector will most likely need in the future to assert their interests against a future Coalition government and energy utilities.

The campaign

On Thursday evening all the key solar industry associations got together to organise their response: The Clean Energy Council; the Australian Solar Council; and the Western Australian-based Sustainable Energy Association. Critically they were joined by a new representative group called Solar Citizens.

Solar Citizens does not represent solar businesses, but rather seeks to represent and mobilise the million households that own solar PV.

They were supported by analytical work from Nigel Morris of SolarBusinessServices and Warwick Johnston of SunWiz.

Given the decision occurred in the middle of a federal election campaign it was realised that this could be used to their advantage. 

Johnston of SunWiz prepared an analysis, illustrated below, identifying marginal seats and the prevalence of solar PV on household rooftops. As is clear to see, Hasluck, Canning and Brand are key targets with one in five households owning solar systems and only a small swing in votes required for the seats to change hands.  

Graph for Barnett’s solar backdown – how it happened

Source: SunWiz

Each solar representative group had press releases out that night. They then followed-up WA media outlets explaining the impacts of the decision on households and solar businesses. From this they managed to obtain front page newspaper coverage of the issue and also extensive coverage across radio.

In addition, WA solar installers were urged to contact customers they knew would be impacted to ask them to complain to their local state and federal MPs and also contact talk radio.

Solar Citizens issued an online petition and contacted their mailing list of WA solar owners informing them of the decision. They backed this up with media appearances urging people to sign their petition.

At the time of the budget Solar Citizens had a few hundred WA solar owners on its mailing list, yet its petition managed to get around 10,000 signatories. Upon signing the petition people were then urged to encourage their friends to also sign the petition and complain to state and federal MPs.

The result of the campaign was spectacular.

Mark Bretherton, Media Manager with the Clean Energy Council, was informed by talk radio programs that their switchboards were overwhelmed with callers wanting to complain about policy change. Pensioners and those on fixed retirement incomes not normally considered greenie radicals or affluent were at the front line in making their anger heard on talk radio.

State government MPs reported they had been flooded with emails and phone calls from irate voters complaining about the cut to the feed-in tariff. Several Liberal MPs even publicly threatened to cross the floor when the issue came to a vote in parliament.

As an example the West Australian newspaper was told by state Liberal MLA Rob Johnson that:

“He had been inundated with emails and phone calls, including from "good Liberal members" who had threatened to resign from the party or even vote against the Coalition at the September 7 federal election.”

Ken Wyatt the Federal member for the marginal seat of Hasluck, where 19 per cent of households have solar systems, evidently heard the message loud and clear as well, issuing the following tweet:

Graph for Barnett’s solar backdown – how it happened

Future implications

Shadow energy minister Ian Macfarlane has made little secret of his concern that solar PV has grown too much for his liking.  Through changes to the Renewable Energy Target he could significantly reduce the affordability of solar.

In addition some regulators have floated the idea of imposing significant fixed charges on owners of solar PV because it’s too hard to undertake fundamental reform of electricity pricing.

The WA campaign provides a template for how such changes could be challenged. However if they were to only affect new solar installations rather than existing ones, it’s not clear that the push back would be as overwhelming.  People have a habit of being far more upset about policy changes that undermine existing investments rather than future opportunities.