Bathurst Burr: “We only learn by our own experience”, Mum used to say to us.

These words were sometimes explanation, sometimes encouragement for the tears we cried, hurts we suffered, falls off horses, the usual toings and froings of farm life.

May I ask you a question I’m asking myself? Do you think we will learn from widespread experiences with shonky solar?

And may I tell you some of these experiences, even as the telling hurts me? I love solar (thank you, sun), and support it daily, but it’s time we talked about solutions for shonky solar.

For over 20 years I’ve been seeing and hearing about poor solar projects. Shonky solar is so common – and growing – that it seems the problem has become systemic and significant.

Yes, there are now complaint sections and fact sheets for solar industry victims, or potential victims, on government fair trading websites in Victoria, Queensland and NSW.

And there are ombudsman complaint processes for misleading and deceptive conduct by the dirty energy sellers that dominate the energy sector. And, of the two sectors, it’s these vast monopolies that consistently mislead customers.

But for solar, when CHOICE surveyed solar power users they found that a quarter of respondents had issues.

Some of its concerns, expressed in 2011, about the length of time it took customers to recover the cost of solar, no longer apply. However, the media is picking up on other solar problems. The Sydney Morning Herald found that one in five household systems is underperforming – that’s 340,000 of the 1.7 million solar households in Australia.

I am raising the alarm now in the hope I can ensure shonky solar practices don’t cause as much harm, as the home insulation scandal in 2014.

Shonky behaviour

Unlike the four deaths during installations, which led to the Home Insulation Royal Commission, there are no reported electrical fault deaths from the solar industry. However, buildings have been urgently shut down when the scale of poor installation work has been discovered during rectification – as happened in an aged care facility on the NSW north coast.

Shonky solar problems have gone beyond poor work standards, poor contracting practices, the impossibility of getting warranties honoured, companies lasting only a few years, leaving no-one to provide repairs or refunds.

And the shonky practices now extend into the financing sector where some businesses exploit the growing fervour for solar power and the lack of experience of customers to solar that, although an old technology, is new to many.

The car industry as a potential solution

By comparison, the car industry is well understood by buyers, sellers, consumer representatives and regulators. Experience by customers and regulators with shonky design and sales practices in the car industry offer some solutions to modern solar shonkiness.

In the ‘60s it was the genius and detailed research by the US campaigner Ralph Nader and his book, Unsafe at any Speed, whose work largely created the world-wide consumer protection legislative regimes, Nader’s work led to US and world-wide first legislative reforms such as the Freedom of Information Act, Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, Clean Water Act, Consumer Product Safety Act, and Whistleblower Act.

These days, thanks to Nader, any car buyer knows and expects a car will be “fit for purpose” and that during the sale there must have been no false or misleading conduct.

A car will have an accurate speedo to tell the driver the speed of the car, an accurate fuel gauge to say how much fuel or battery energy is being used per kilometre and whether a top up is needed, the car and its parts will have been tested for passenger safety, and must meet a range of minimum, transparent standards.

Over a million cars are sold in Australia each year and anyone driving a car knows if it’s not delivering the promised fuel efficiency, if the car won’t start, or when the next service is due. We must register it each year or we can’t drive it.

Not so for solar.

Firstly, it’s up on the roof – out of sight or touch – and we don’t need it to get the groceries.

Secondly, despite thick red tape, solar buyers don’t yet have buying or user knowledge, or protections, equivalent to those enjoyed by car buyers or drivers.

Of the total 1.7 million solar households in Australia I guestimate – there is no public data – that fewer than a couple of hundred thousand know how much power their systems produce, how to get them serviced as reliably or easily as their car, or are in a comparable consumer situation to that of a car owner.

Tales of woe

Alan Pears is one of Australia’s leading energy experts and a voice of consumer protection for the solar industry. He wrote to me saying,

I too have my concerns. I have proposed in a number of submissions and in an Energy Consumers Australia consultation paper that we need much stronger consumer protection for solar and, indeed, to deal with the emerging potential for a household to have multiple ‘energy service’ providers so that, if something goes wrong, they may be not left hanging while all the providers try to shift the blame onto each other or just shut down.

I have proposed an approach similar to Victoria’s ‘no fault’ third party car insurance.

People pay a levy and a government agency is empowered to ensure they are looked after (that is, supply is provided via an appropriate means, whether it is a battery, power lead over the fence from a neighbour or whatever) and the agency takes the responsibility to work out who is at fault and ensure they pay. The consumer should not suffer.

When I raised this idea at (a recent public meeting) a woman from the Victorian Energy and Water Ombudsman’s office grabbed the microphone and enthusiastically supported my call. She went on to say they get a lot of complaints about solar installations.

Apart from that I have had zero response to my efforts, though the Victorian Energy Retailing inquiry did recommend some strengthening of the ombudsman’s role.”

Let’s look at some stories.

One of Australia’s leading sustainability consultants, Marlon Kobacker, one of Australia’s leading sustainability consultants, told me,

…when I was on the market for a PV system I had done system performance calculations and showed the sales guy – he wasn’t able to carry the technical conversation about design and performance parameters, so I was probably a special case.

  • I talked them down a step on the inverter (from 3kW to 2.5kW) to reduce cost – they simply oversized it to increase revenue
  • I convinced them to change the PV panel manufacturer to a cheaper Tier 1 model, again reducing their revenue
  • I asked for a net meter to export to the grid, which took six months – wasting all of my excess electricity and associated income during that period
  • I asked for monitoring equipment and software, which took nine months to get someone here to make work, and this showed me that the inverter was in fact down for six months, again wasting income. Apparently, the mains had shut the system off from some kind of overload situation, and it never came back on. And I had no idea.

You shouldn’t have to have a degree in Photovoltaic Engineering and be an active member of the Australian PV industry to make a 2.6kW system work.”

Lack of innovation in an innovative industry

Again, let’s compare the solar and car industries.

Despite high, long-lived state and federal subsidies, heavy investment in automation during the manufacturing process, and almost continuous advertising in all forms of media, the Australian car manufacturing industry has declined. Manufacturing plants have closed as cheaper overseas cars are imported.

The comparatively trivial subsidies for the solar industry could partly explain why the industry generally doesn’t invest in design, installation and financing improvements, and is less driven by efficiency than the car industry. It may be acquiring similar status-driven incentives, however.

Low profit margins for installers provide insufficient incentive for investment in more efficient design and installation.

Working at height on roofs, in the weather, with safety gear, is time and money-hungry.

Insurances, interruptions, high-risk processes, heavy labour costs and time-consuming activities take their toll. A lot of time is spent on roofs tying bits of wire to panels, joining bits of pipes to run from the panels through roofs, walls and ceilings.

Watching solar installers is like watching an old movie; the industry seems locked into an unchanging paradigm because:

  • they get on the roof and do the wiring up there, harnessed and slow-moving
  • if a panel isn’t working they have to check each one – if they check at all
  • most wiring and prepping of batteries and inverters is done on site instead of before arriving there

Solar design and pricing has been made more efficient. Designers may defer site visits and use internet mapping services to show shading or other site specific impacts to assess whether a site visit is justified.

These mapping services were not initiated by the solar industry, however.

Solar costs, mainly for solar panels, have dropped due to increased production.

Increases in panel efficiency – about 10 per cent to 20 per cent more electricity than 20 years ago – mean that two to three times as much power can be delivered from the same roof area with fewer panels. Panels I bought for $26,000 in 1996 now cost $2500.

I wonder, could prefab solar lift profits, cut prices, improve quality, and help solve some systemic problems?

Prefab is not a new idea. In 1999, solar early-adopter Stefan Jarnason, was involved in the development a “prefab” solar product called Plug and Play. He now designs monitoring tools for Solar Analytics. Of Plug and Play, he wrote to me saying that it, “Ended up being sold to an Adelaide company and eventually dying.”

Monitoring is not the answer

Monitoring by itself is a limited solution to poor design or installation. It may not, for example, identify the cause of low solar power production, only the fact that the amount of power is less than promised.

But, as this next story shows, most damage to customers and to the solar industry may now be coming from the finance sector.

The damage being done and the exploitative, deceptive conduct of the finance sector is similar to the systemic poor conduct being exposed by evidence in the current Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking and Financial Services Industry.

This example of poor conduct involves a lease aggregator and a lease finance company, but there are others.

These two companies focus on selling solar to businesses and retain ownership of the systems they lease.

Throughout the lease, the systems remain the property of the finance companies.

The companies typically only finance if they get personal guarantees obliging business directors to pay the lease in any circumstances, including where the leased solar system does not work

The lease agreements oblige the business to buy the system at the end of the lease if they wish to keep it on their roof.

These companies are forcing businesses to pay monthly lease payments when they are not getting any solar production or the leased system does not reduce their electricity costs.

Businesses and individuals who have given a personal guarantee are forced to pay when the finance companies know the solar system is not working, has never worked and the customer has obtained no financial value from the system.

There is a close working relationship between the finance companies and the installers, their websites show.

The companies achieve sales through solar installers who approach customers. Such installers typically use satellite mapping to identify potential houses and business customers then contact them by phone to achieve a solar sale.

For these companies, one installer, Got to go Solar, sold solar systems to businesses and households with leases backed up by personal guarantees from the customers.

Like a number of solar installers Got to Go Solar ceased trading a few years after setting up, and is not available to honour warranties or repair the systems it sold or to answer for the misrepresentations it made to customers.

When insisting on lease payments continuing when they know systems have failed, or have never produced energy, or never produced savings in electricity bills, the lease companies say installation faults are not their responsibility and payment must nonetheless be made.

The story told to me by a NSW customer who is a lease holder of a solar system installed by Got to Go Solar has appalled me. The customer complained to both companies the solar system had not produced solar electricity for the business from the time of installation and over two years.

Photo taken by electricians show they filled a vase with the water taken from inside the wires from the solar system on the building roof

The roof was discovered by the business owner’s plumbers to have two 30 mm open holes left by the solar installer and causing leaking and water damage to the walls and floors through the two floors of the building below.

The electricians deemed the solar system highly dangerous and shut it down by disconnecting it from the main power fuse box located next to it.

The customer complained to both companies the solar system had not produced solar electricity for the business from installation and over two years.

The response from both companies was that the customer was responsible for the selection and delivery of the equipment and needed to make sure they were satisfied with its condition and quality and fitness for purpose. Nor were they responsible for any damage or loss.

Got to Go Solar no longer exists.

Yet the lease aggregator and lease finance companies both say that they are committed to a high degree of ethics and sustainability.

Australian consumer laws mandate that products must be fit for purpose.

If a car is not fit for purpose the owner generally knows it at the time of driving.

If a solar system is not fit for purposes the owner too often won’t know it until later.

Even for experienced solar industry players like Marlon Kobacker, it can take six or more months, often longer, to become aware the system is malfunctioning or not fit for purpose. All the while there may be monthly lease payments coming out of their bank, Sales of electricity back to the grid may be lost, water damage from a leaking roof may be happening out of sight.

Recent data indicates a five-fold growth in solar panels on commercial buildings. This brings with it a potentially five-fold increase in personal and business credit downgrades, mental stress and unfair financial practices.

Yes, we may learn from our experience.

But what if the price of the learning is unaffordable?

We’ve seen that just because a household or business buys solar panels does not mean their bills will be lower. Nor does having solar on a roof necessarily make our air cleaner. Only monitoring of a system can tell the true story but that may not be enough to enable the customer to have the panels removed or repaired.

Let’s all get our solar systems monitored, just like a car’s fuel tank is.

Let’s get similar consumer protections for solar as are enjoyed by car owners.

But there’s a broader risk.

Our climate is broken.

Much of the land where we grow food in Australia is in drought.

Getting clean air is our existential issue, for farmers, any of us with lungs, a tummy to fill, even for financiers who are about to discover the hard way they can’t eat money.

Summer is coming to Australia. But not summer as we’re used to it.

As we and Australia burn this summer, let’s think of those financial advisers in their air con offices, totting up their revenue streams.

And do something about it.

If you know of, or have experienced, any solar shonkiness write to the body dedicated to high standards and an excellent solar industry – the Clean Energy Council – and let them know.

Michael Mobbs converted his Sydney terrace into a sustainable house in 1996 and disconnected it from mains water, sewerage and electricity. For the last 22 years, with four people, the house’s energy and water bills have been less than $300 per year. Michael designs and obtains approvals for projects that are off-grid for water, energy, materials and food and his work is documented in two books, Sustainable House, and Sustainable Food.