Solar panel suppliers who peddle shonky products will lose their eligibility for government incentives following the introduction of new measures to tighten up the industry, the Clean Energy Council says.

The renewable energy industry’s peak body recently announced initiatives to substantially lift the bar on the quality of solar power products sold in Australia and ensure better outcomes for consumers.

CEC policy manager Darren Gladman said the changes had been made to safeguard retailers and consumers who try to follow up on overseas manufacturers’ warranties with little or no response.

“The system was set up to ensure that suppliers were compliant with Australian Standards, the electrical safety regulations and the legislation that goes around that, and it was doing its job in that regard, but it just wasn’t set up to allow us to take action against suppliers that were blatantly not honouring their warranty obligations under Australia consumer law,” he said.

In the past suppliers of solar panels and inverters needed to demonstrate compliance with Australian Standards to be placed on the CEC’s Solar Accreditation website. Last year the CEC reviewed its terms and conditions for listed inverters, including consumer issues, warranty obligations and after-sale service as part of the criteria. Non-complying companies or products could be struck off the list.

Last week similar changes were announced for PV panels. The new changes include:

  • The introduction of an independent testing program for solar panels to ensure that marketing claims match product performance and safety
  • The ability to remove solar panels that fail the testing program from the list of approved products
  • New terms and conditions that provide the ability to de-list panels for breaches of consumer law such as failure to honour warranties

“Being on the CEC list is one of the requirements for eligibility for the Small-scale Renewable Energy Scheme so being delisted means that you are at a significant price disadvantage to your competition,” Mr Gladman said. “That will be a pretty strong incentive for people to remain listed.”

Stronger sanctions when safety issues are detected include bringing the product to the attention of the safety regulators, which have the power to issue a product recall.

“Under the new system it means that just as before all suppliers are going to need to show compliance with Australian Standards and regulations, but as well as that there are a few extra elements,” Mr Gladman said. “If the testing program shows non-conformance with what they state in their certifications then that could lead to them being removed from our list.”

One of the issues with standards generally – not just for PV – is that manufacturers present an example of their product for testing that meets the standard and then over time start substituting cheaper materials.

“By having an independent testing program we are hoping that we can pick up on some of those issues,” Mr Gladman said.

Solar panel suppliers will need to provide full disclosure on the country or multiple countries of manufacture in their supply chain and details of their after-sales warranty process. In addition, importers must keep a record of all serial numbers of modules supplied to the Australian market and, if required, make that information available to the CEC or the Clean Energy Regulator.

“We think that is going to be extremely helpful in ensuring that people aren’t defrauding the system,” Mr Gladman said.

While acknowledging that most importers are in it for the long run and do the right thing in regards to warranty issues, he said others try to benefit from “container loads of panels at very cheap prices”.

“I think what some of those installers don’t understand is that whereas in the past if they took panels from a retailer and installed them they only had the obligation to the consumer as far as the installation goes – so they are responsible for the workmanship,” Mr Gladman said.

“If you are an installer who decides to import a container of panels, you are not just an installer. You are also an importer and you’re a retailer so you have a whole lot of obligations under Australian consumer law. Some of those people who just import one-off panels either don’t understand this or would prefer to overlook it, so that’s one part of the industry that we hope is discouraged by this new process.

“Our main advice to consumers if they are looking at buying a system is buy it from a reputable retailer that will stand behind the product for at least five years,” Mr Gladman said. “It’s incumbent on the retailer to make sure they are getting the right product from a good supplier that is going to stand behind the manufacturer’s warranty.”