A sun-fuelled stoush between Member for Morwell Russell Northe and the Victorian Greens leader on social media has sparked a wider debate over higher tariffs paid by home owners supplying solar power to the grid.
The debate has centred on the domestic distribution prices of energy retailer Simply Energy, an arm of Hazelwood owner-operator GDZ SUEZ, which has set the daily supply charge for homes with solar panels at 110.2 cents, about 14 cents more than non-solar customers, or $51 extra per year.
The tariff difference was detailed in a government gazette, shared on Twitter on Monday morning by Greens senator Greg Barber, who has slammed the supply charge difference as unjustified.
“One power company wants to charge you 14c per day extra if you have solar on your roof. A tax on the sun?” Mr Barber tweeted.
The tweet drew a response from Victoria’s Energy and Mining Minister, Mr Northe, who was quick to defend the tariff difference.
“You don’t get to feed your power into the grid for free or have it overly subsidised by the rest of us,” Mr Northe tweeted back.
“Solar power is great, but it costs money to send it around the grid.”
Mr Northe’s spokesperson later told the The Express it was becoming standard practice for some retailers to charge more for solar homes due to the extra supply associated costs.
However the spokesperson said only some retailers individually itemised the higher solar tariff, while others absorbed the cost into overall supply charges.
“(With solar), there needs to be upgrades to be able to supply that service to the distribution network, and the retailers pay that cost by charging that consumer more,” the spokesperson said.
However Mr Northe’s stance has been lambasted by Mr Barber and solar advocates as a political defence of established power generation methods and networks.
“By his rationale, anything which places an extra burden on the distribution network should attract extra charges. Let’s look at when someone installs an air conditioner in their house; this puts a huge burden the grid at a time when demand is already high (summer),” Mr Barber said.
“So in that case a power company would actually be justified in saying that air con is going to put a huge additional burden on the network, but I’ve never heard any power company say we should slap a fix charged on air con.
“It’s simply a political stance; Simply Energy, as a reseller of brown coal power, are clearly trying to provide disincentives for people to go to solar, and Mr Northe clearly doesn’t like that competition with coal fired power stations.”
Mr Northe’s defence of the tariff quickly sparked an online petition from solar advocacy group Solar Citizens, calling on the Premier Denis Napthine and Mr Northe to prevent energy companies from “unfairly” charging solar homes.
“I am very concerned to learn that Victorian energy retailer Simply Energy is singling out solar users for extra fixed charges on their energy bills. Even more concerning is that you appear to endorse this position,” the petition stated.
“You do not appear to support singling out other energy users who make more demands on the grid, such as the use of air conditioners at peak times.”
“We urge you to stop this unfair discrimination immediately by changing the Electricity Industry Act to make it a condition of a retail energy licence that no power offer can discriminate between those that have solar and those that don’t.”
The petition had attracted 1,640 signatures as of yesterday afternoon.
Attempts to contact Simply Energy were unsuccessful, with calls to the retailer’s head office left unanswered.
A phone call to the Energy Retailers Association of Australia was also not returned.
The solar tariff comes as debate intensifies over ballooning power bills across the country, due to the cost of network upgrades by distribution companies, which as monopolies are government regulated.
While the rate paid for electricity fed back into the grid by solar households began at 60 cents per kilowatt hour, that figure was reduced to 25 cents in September 2011, before dropping to eight cents in September 2012.
Mr Northe’s spokesperson urged power customers unhappy with their retailers’ prices to use the State Government’s online energy planning tool at www.switchon.vic.gov.au