Australia Dims the Light on Solar Schools Program

In another example of the “victim-of-its-own-success” phenomenonrecently plaguing solar, as of October 15 the Australian government abruptly suspended its wildly popular AUD $480 million (US $441 million) National Solar Schools Program, an initiative which offered grants of up to $50,000 to each eligible school that was installing a solar system.

Over a year after unveiling the program in July 2008, AustralianEnvironment Minister Peter Garrett pulled the plug on Thursday via anotice on the NSSP website, with little warning and even less fanfare. The website summed up the reason for the temporary closure in two terse sentences:

The program met its 2009-10 targets earlier thananticipated. More than half of all eligible Australian schools areregistered and hundreds of claims have already been paid.

While any school that failed to make the cut by 3:00pm AESDST on the 15thwill have to wait until May 2010 to rejoin in on the action, severalhundred schools were still able to secure funding for the year. On themain page of the NSSP website:

Australia Dims the Light on Solar Schools Program

All claims submitted to the program before 3:00pm AESDSTThursday 15 October 2009 will still be processed this financial year.This means that more than 700 additional schools should receive fundingin 2009-10.

According to a spokesman for Minister Garrett, 1300 schools had beenapproved under the program last year, with an additional 500 alreadyapproved this year and the presumably aforementioned 700 “still in thepipeline for assessment.” Though the Australian government plans toreopen the NSSP to new applications starting May 2010, two monthsbefore a new found of funding becomes available, the suspension is onlythe latest in a series of decisions that have caused Australian solarenthusiasts to cry foul (and one “climate change spokesman” to callGarrett a “solar fraud”). Others are merely disappointed, and have called forthe Australian government to cease making snap decisions on solar andto begin implementing more sustainable policies—a reasonable requestfrom solar industry folks, given the government’s sudden axing of apopular $8,000 rebate for household solar panels earlier in the year(later replaced with a smaller rebate), as well as its termination of arebate for building renewable facilities, aimed at Australians livingin remote areas.

An interesting thing to note about the program is that the funding is not a rebate—what the NSSP websitedefines as money for future commitments, purchased items or projectscompleted or begun “prior to you entering into a funding agreement withthe Australian Government National Solar Schools Program.” Rather,schools are only eligible for the grant if they sign a fundingagreement with the aforementioned party prior to making any solarcommitments, with a National Solar Schools grant being a one-offpayment that the recipient cannot split into numerous installations, tobe used at any future dates. Whether or not this policy had anything todo with the swiftness with which the initiative ran out of money, I’mnot sure. But one thing is for certain: as solar power gains inpopularity, big-scale government solar initiatives will have to beimplemented more prudently—or at least learn to recalibrate morequickly in the face of high demand.

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