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How Coal-Loving Australia Became the Leader in Rooftop Solar

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CAIRNS, Australia — Australia is the world’s second-largest exporter of coal, which plays an outsize role in its economy and politics. But the country has also quietly become a renewable energy powerhouse.

About one in four 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 place 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 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.”

But many state governments have