CAIRNS, AUSTRALIA – Australia is the world's second-largest exporter of coal, which plays an outsized role in its economy and politics. But the country has also quietly become a renewable energy powerhouse.
About 1 in 4 Australian homes have rooftop solar panels, a larger share than in any other major economy, and the rate of installations far outpaces the global average. The country is well ahead of Germany, Japan, and California, which are widely considered leaders in clean energy. In California, which leads U.S. states in the use of solar power, less than 10 percent of utility customers have rooftop solar panels.
Most Australians who have embraced solar do not appear to have done so for altruistic reasons like wanting to fight climate change. Many are responding to incentives offered by state governments in the absence of a coordinated federal approach, a sharp drop in the price of solar panels in recent years, and an increase in electricity rates.
Politically conservative homeowners have also embraced solar to become less reliant on the electricity grid in keeping with the high-value many Australians places on rugged individualism.
In two of the country’s most populous states — Queensland, a conservative stronghold, and New South Wales, home to left-leaning Sydney — as many as half of the homes have solar panels.
“The future for New South Wales and indeed the country is one where our energy comes from sun, wind and pumped hydro, not just because it’s good for the environment but because it’s good for the economy,” said Matt Kean, minister for energy and environment in New South Wales.
“That’s one of the reasons we’ve got the highest penetration of rooftop solar anywhere on the planet,” he added. “People are doing that because they want to save money.”
Australia has limited federal targets to curb carbon emissions, and its prime minister, Scott Morrison, has championed the coal industry, which last year exported more coal than every other country except Indonesia, according to the International Energy Agency. Last year, the government approved a major project to send coal to India.
But many state governments have taken a very different approach. After the federal government failed to adopt a renewable energy policy in the early 2000s, Australian states began adopting aggressive climate policies and giving homeowners incentives to buy solar panels and, more recently, batteries to store power.
Those incentives kick-started the solar boom, and rooftop solar regularly provides about 5% of Australia’s electricity, compared with just under 1 percent in the United States.
The uptake has been especially high in Queensland, which makes up a big chunk of the country’s northeast and includes Cairns and Brisbane. The state has hot, humid weather similar to Florida’s and also calls itself the Sunshine State.