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Solar panels are great, but so is a healthy, liveable home

Home solar could get a huge kick-along in Victoria over the next few years. Under the ‘Solar Homes’ program, Labor is promising solar panel subsidies to 650,000 households, worth up to $2,225 each, along with an interest-free, four-year loan to repay the balance of the purchase.

But as solar takes off, energy efficiency takes a back seat. At this point, the only nod to energy efficiency under the Solar Homes program is a $1,000 subsidy for solar hot water systems, available to 6,000 households. This is a welcome move to help reduce one of the ‘big three’ areas of home energy spending—heating, whitegoods and hot water—but it doesn’t quite cut the mustard.

The Solar Homes program could deliver other energy-efficiency measures, to produce bigger bill savings and create healthy, liveable homes. This includes basic housing features such as insulation, affordable fixed heating, window coverings, simple draught sealing, and repairs to broken windows, walls and floors. Home solar can certainly reduce energy bills, but it’s only one tool in the toolkit. For some people, more fundamental housing improvements are needed first.

What could make a real difference is if the Victorian Government makes the $2,225 subsidy available for solar panels or energy-efficiency measures. People could then choose the approach most beneficial for them, guided by a home assessment using the government’s Residential Efficiency Scorecard. The $2,225 subsidy would meet almost half the costs of a $5500 package of the most cost-effective energy and water efficiency measures. This could also help renters who are not currently eligible for solar panels.

Extending the subsidy will make all the difference for some people, putting a more affordable, comfortable home within reach. It should be targeted at low and modest income-earners, who suffer most from high energy and housing prices, and have the least capacity to adapt to a changing, dangerous climate.

For other people this subsidy will not be enough; extra financial support and expert advice will be necessary. The Victorian Government should scale-up excellent existing programs that help people most in need, including:

  • Victorian Healthy Homes, which improves home warmth for people on low incomes living with chronic health problems. The project covers 800 homes in Melbourne’s western suburbs and 200 homes in the Goulburn Valley region.
  • The EnergySmart Public Housing Research Project, which aims to achieve bill savings and improved thermal comfort for 1500 households, and create an evidence base for further public housing retrofits.
  • The Affordable Retrofits program for low-income households, which delivers free in-home energy assessments, energy deal advice, and subsidised, tailored retrofits, such as insulation, draught sealing and appliance upgrades.

To further boost home health and affordability, the Victorian Government should prescribe meaningful energy-efficiency standards for rental housing, under its new powers to create minimum rental standards. VCOSS will be closely watching standards development next year, to ensure Victorian renters finally receive the common-sense health, safety and energy-efficiency measures many people take for granted.

Victoria is already showing the way to a clean energy future. Let’s see the same leadership to create healthy, liveable homes—for every Victorian, not just the lucky few.