Father and daughter looking at solar panels on rooftop.

Flexible solar exports hit the ground running: Is it all good news?

Households with rooftop solar could soon see their export limits practically double, allowing for greater returns on investment and less grid congestion, as the nation’s south kicks off flexible exports tariff offerings for solar customers.

For those out of the loop, from July 1, 2023, South Australia introduced one of the first flexible exports tariffs for new solar customers on its distribution network. This means that households in the state looking to install a new rooftop solar system now have the option between a fixed (also known as ‘static’) export limit or a flexible export limit.

The flexible export limit will see customers allowed to export up to 10 kilowatts (kW) of solar energy back into the grid at least 99% of the time. Previously customers in SA have been capped at a maximum of 5kW.

A successful trial of the export scheme from late 2021 to 2022 saw the flexible exports tariff permanently implemented for new solar system installs in SA.

Solar Analytics CEO Stefan Jarnason said it was a welcomed change, explaining that flexible exports allowed customers to become unconstrained by their solar energy.

“Flexible exports are when, as a customer who decides to put solar on my roof, I can choose to have a 10kW export limit. This is a flexible limit and means that 99 per cent of the time I can export 10kW,” he said.

“So, most of the time I can sell more back to the grid, make a bit of money from that and provide cheaper electricity for everyone.”

Mr Jarnason said it was a vast improvement on the previous maximum of 5kW for SA customers.

“Historically, what the grid network companies have done is they have put in what’s called a static export limit. That means that if you have, say a 10kW solar system on your roof, you are limited to, typically, a maximum of 5kW at any point in time being sold back to the grid. And that solar is literally just wasted, thrown away, nobody can use it.”

Export caps were introduced as a way to manage energy congestion and stability issues for the grid, following the rapid uptake of rooftop solar panels by households. Previously they have aided in times of off-peak demand when too much energy is being flooded into the grid but not being used, such as a sunny weekend afternoon.

While suited to protecting the grid from unexpected blackouts, Mr Jarnason said static export limits meant that not only solar customers, but energy customers as a whole were missing out on the full benefits of small-scale renewable energy.

“More and more solar is now being thrown away with people on these static export limits. And the problem with that is you can’t get as much value out of your solar, nor can other people get your cheap, renewable solar for themselves to use.”

How much can customers save with a flexible export tariff?

Mr Jarnason and his company, online solar monitoring platform Solar Analytics, calculated data from 35,000 of its customers to see just how much of an impact flexible export tariffs could have on Australian households.

Based on that data, the CEO said flexible exports had the potential to save a collective $109 million for all households connected to the grid, both with and without solar, if implemented at a national level.

Utilising the previously wasted solar energy could also see an extra 600,000 homes powered, which in turn, could help to lower the price of electricity prices as a whole.

Mr Jarnason said it proved a no-brainer for solar customers, particularly for those customers with the means to access flexible exports.

“For almost all of our solar customers, certainly all of those who have a bigger than 5kW solar system, they would be better off under this flexible export rule than choosing the static export.”

South Australian family-man and community solar advocate, Chad King, agreed that the new export tariff proved to be a healthier alternative for curtailing solar energy exports in the grid.

“I think the flexible exports is a good idea because it maximises the amount of energy that we can actually put into the existing grid,” he said. “There are certain parts of Adelaide and major cities across the country where the amount of solar is higher than what the grid can handle in that area.

“So, the alternative is to either stop telling people to put solar on their roof, which is not a great outcome for the climate, or we start to spend even more money on poles and wires which the consumer can’t afford. So, I think that the government’s decision to implement flexible exports is actually an effective one.”

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So, is the flexible exports tariff all good news then?

The flexible exports tariff appears to be all positive news for solar customers, particularly those interested in system sizes above 5kW in SA.

However, there is one major component that Mr King warns customers to be cautious of.

“When you sign up under the new scheme, you need to nominate a third party, which is probably going to be a solar supplier, and their job is to do the remote management,” he said. “So, in the event that SA Power Networks wants to shut down or curtail energy they’ll send a message to that third party and they’ll then send a message out to the individual solar systems.

“I think that is problematic for a couple of reasons. One is you are introducing another party into the mix so you’ve got your energy retailer, you’ve got SA Power Networks and now you’ve got an ongoing sort of reliance on this third party. And, because the systems have to be connected to the internet in order to work, you need constant access to the internet which not all households can afford to do or not all locations will have.”

Remote, third-party access to solar energy systems is by no means a foreign concept for households in Australia, particularly with the rising interest in Virtual Power Plant networks (VPP) and Demand Response programs.

They do however, as Mr King noted, raise concerns around accessibility for some solar energy users, which may be something some households may wish to take into consideration.

It should also be noted that not all locations may currently be able to access the flexible exports tariff, nor will all household types be compatible.

At this stage this tariff option is only applicable for new solar system installations across the South Australian Power Networks network (SAPN), with a similar scheme also in place for Western Australian households. However, there do appear to be plans from other distributors to extend this tariff to their own networks in the coming years.

Additionally, while accessing a flexible exports tariff does improve the export limits for solar system owners, households should consider that it doesn’t wholly exclude them from demand response events. This means that in the case of high congestion or potential power instability, the distributor can still limit the number of exports sent from a system as a means to control the grid.

SA customers concerned about the remote management of their solar exports however, can opt-in to an ongoing static export in its place. This tariff comes with a significantly lower export limit of 1.5kW that doesn’t fluctuate, no matter the conditions.

Please note, customers will require a smart meter to be eligible for a flexible exports tariff. For more information or to see if you are eligible for a flexible exports tariff, it is best to visit the SAPN website or contact a licensed solar installer.

Got solar on your rooftop already? Make sure you aren’t missing out on a better feed-in tariff with one of these solar plans

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Image credit: Halfpoint/Shutterstock.com

Kelseigh Wrigley
Energy Specialist
Kelseigh Wrigley was a content producer at Canstar Blue for three years until 2024, most recently as an Energy Specialist. She holds a Bachelor of Journalism from the Queensland University of Technology.

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