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Another rooftop solar boom – this time with warnings

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Record low solar panel prices, combined with the ratcheting-down or removal of federal and state policy levers, are sparking a boom in Australia’s residential and commercial solar markets, while also prompting warnings to consumers to avoid the lure of cheap and nasty solar products – and installers.

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Retailers and wholesalers in the solar PV market have reported experiencing “unprecedented demand” in the month of November, which looks set to continue into December, the first month of the Australian summer.

Solar system wholesaler, Solar Juice, said it had seen a “substantial surge in demand” in November, resulting in a “record month” in what was traditionally a period of “fairly soft” demand.

“We’re air-freighting inverters into the country from Germany at the moment to fulfill demand,” Solar Juice sales director Andrew Burgess told RE over the phone on Thursday. “That’s something we haven’t done in 5 years.

“We are already seeing (retailers) pushing really, really hard for supply,” Burgess said. People are saying that they’ve got installation crews booked out to the last day of the year.”

The spike in demand, which Burgess says is coming largely from the commercial solar sector, is being put down to a number of factors, including changes to policy mechanisms – both federally and in a number of states – and the fall in cost of PV panels.

The latter, as we have reported, is the result of a global panel glut described by Bloomberg New Energy Finance as “a new era of substantial overcapacity” that could deliver prices as low as $US0.30c/Watt.

In Australia – as we observed in August – this factor alone could provide impetus for a solar boom, particularly considering how comparatively low solar system prices are in this market already.

Added to this is the flurry of activity created by the impending end of the solar bonus scheme in NSW – closely followed by Victoria – which is expected to see many households expand their existing (and long-since paid off) solar systems, and perhaps adding battery storage.

Another policy lever that is being ratcheted down is the national STC multiplier rebate. That is, from January 31 2017, the deeming period will be dropped from 15 years to 14 years; and will drop another year, every year for the next 15 years.

According to Nigel Morris, from solar retailer Roof Juice, the cost impact of this wind-back will be negligible, and almost certainly cancelled out by further declines in panel prices.

Nonetheless, he told RenewEconomy, there are companies out there using the rebate wind-down as a “scare tactic” to convince people to invest now. And a lot of these companies, Morris warns, will be pedalling poor quality and “dumb” solar.

“Of the around 500MW or so of solar PV moved through the retail market so far this year, somewhere between six to 10 companies supply around 50-60 per cent of it,” he told RE. Of that number, he adds, “the majority is absolute crap, dumb solar, cheap solar.”

This, “unequivocally has an impact on the broader industry,” says Morris, because it is these guys who these guys set the price expectations for the entire market.

“There is nowhere on the planet where you can get solar as cheap as you can in Australia,” he said. Ultimately, consumers are “confounded and utterly confused … (and) don’t know who to believe. They’re nervous about paying double – typically that’s the price gap (between top tier and bottom tier solar), at least double – so that’s a big leap of faith.”

Burgess, meanwhile, is a little more upbeat about the state of the retail market. Sure, there are “some ratbags out there, and we’re not going to get rid of them,” he concedes.

“There are probably guys out there spruiking that the it’s the end of the world on solar rebates… there’s always going to be guys that are going to chase price. Door knockers, using whatever means to try and get a sale.

“But my gut instinct is that the industry is getting better, not worse,” he said. Layers of regulations and accreditations – both voluntary and mandatory – are being added; the inverter market is being cleaned up, and the end consumer is getting more savvy, in terms of product and quality.

“A lot of people I speak to who have installed solar say ‘we got a shit inverter put on, we’re not going to do that again’.”

Burgess says the solar inverter market, like the panel market, has a wide-ranging quality spectrum. But a “bunch of new measures” administered buy the CEC has insured inverters comply with Australian standards if they are to be approved for STCs.

“That came in place on October 9 and caught a number of manufacturers off guard,” Burgess said.

Indeed, some of the requirements for the Australian solar industry are not applicable in any other market in the world, Burgess says.

On this point, Morris agrees: “It’s worth highlighting that in terms of installer accreditation and retail programs as well, the Australian market offers more assurances around quality – installation and retailing of solar – than pretty much anywhere in the world,” he told RE.

The only loophole – and it’s a rather big one – is that most of it is voluntary.

“When you look at it there’s about 40 CEC-approved retailers Australia-wide,” Morris says, “and about 3000 solar companies Australia-wide. Why wouldn’t the other 2,960 do it?”

Interestingly, and perhaps in an effort to mop up that “other 2,960”, Australia’s top two solar industry bodies – the Clean Energy Council and the Australian Solar Council – both released new programs on Thursday to educate the public on quality solar installers.

The ASC announced the launch of a “public facing education campaign, encouraging families to choose a quality installer,” alongside a new training program for installers.

“To qualify as an Australian Solar Council Master Installer, installers must pass an intensive training program, commit to ongoing professional development, and be subject to a random audit and inspection program with real teeth, that will remove installers not living up to our high standards,” the ASC release said.

The CEC, meanwhile, launched a new campaign “advising people buying solar panels to look for an Approved Solar Retailer to make sure they get the best possible quality and service – and avoid getting a bad deal.”  

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  • Tristan

    “…installation crews booked out to the last day of the year.”
    My install isn’t until Feb!

  • Ken Dyer

    The really smart thing to do is to replace tiles and tine with a solar roof. Australia has a design winning system out now http://www.tractile.com.au. All new roofs should be using this system – much more economic.

    • Greg Hudson

      I believe any web site where you can’t see prices seems dodgy to me…

  • trackdaze

    Having gone through the process you can pick the rubbish stuff by the marketing push.

    I could of got steak knives too!

  • Ian

    Sophie, apologies for hijacking your comments section but I thought you might like my comment I posted on the Electrek web site about Tesla’s building a GF in Europe. People think Tesla’s battery packs are cutting edge technology, the electronics and packaging might be that but the guts of their offering is the 18650 or soon the 2170 rechargeable lithium cell:

    Why does everyone praise Tesla’s batteries. Lots of manufacturers make rechargeable lithium cells, Panasonic is just one of many. The 18650 was the standard for Tesla, the same cell as used in many rc model vehicles, cordless tools, laptops etc. They now call the shots and have tweeked the size a bit to suit themselves 2170(0). Instead of 18mm diameter x 65mm length they have chosen 21mm diameter x 70 mm length. Hardly a technological breakthrough!

    Really! One could buy a battery making machine and start your own mini-factory churning out these things as a cottage industry.

    Imagine that, aftermarket EV conversion kits: whip out the ICE , detach the petrol tank, shove in an electric motor and a home made battery pack and off you go.

    Thinking of this: Alibaba lists companies that do just this, make lithium manufacturing lines. You could buy your own off Alibaba. The Bolivian government did exactly this. They bought a lithium cell manufacturing line to make ebikes. The only difference between a rc car or an ebike and a model 3 is the number of 18650’s powering it.

    • neroden

      Sure, you can build your own. The tech breakthrough from Tesla is not the actual cell, it’s the manufacturing process, which they have made *cheaper* than anyone else.

      • Ian

        Not to knock down Tesla, but to demonstrate what they are doing is not rocket science ( that’s Musk’s other company;) ), there is very little manufacturing mystery involved , just plain old business confidence, hard work and effort.

    • Greg Hudson

      There won’t be 18650’s in a Model 3. It is being designed to use the larger 21700’s from the GigaFactory (same as the PowerWall 2). See:

  • mmh779977

    Hi Sophie-from Miami

    I have been tracking your comments for some time now and find all very insightful as you have good eye for material issues to protect all us as consumers-or potential consumers of solar.

    Comments were made above that Australian standards for Solar are not transferrable to other countries. I hope that is not the case, because many of us here in South Florida are keenly interested in the evolution of SOLAR ROOF industry at the household level in Australia. The experience curve in Australia is far advanced for most of the rest of world-and esp true here in Miami. ,

    While Australia is not South Florida, the differences as its relates solar roof potential are likely very similar. And, to be sure, Australia has no lock on charlatans.

    Calle Ocho-one of Miami’s famous tourist attraction-also has another more nefarious reputation: the ‘Think Tank’ for fraud and abuse. If you want to purchase a fake medical claims-and-couple it to a fake auto accidents-and- now cobble together a scheme linking the auto accident to a solar roof installations-just ask. This article. in fact, would surely stimulate a gleam is someone’s eye in a back room in one of the walk accidents clinics.

    But, it is articles such as yours that are necessary to alert the rest of us in nascent solar markets to the vultures perched on the very rooftop subject to the conversion,

    Keep up the good work as we have an open ear to any other advice or links you may want to provide regarding the formation of standards, accreditation, and related items to consumer protection.

    FYI, also, microgrids and block chains are emerging hot topics that we are tracking in Australia.

    We can all learn by sharing.

    Dr. Mike Hirschberger
    Miami

    • Chris Fraser

      Likewise Michael, it is us who need to more about solar roofing. Australians have three products and a fourth in development. If a product from there comes out that is worth an extra look please share . Cheers !

      • mmh779977

        Hi Chris.

        But at least you have 3 to 4 to choose from.

        In South Florida we needed first to get rid of the greedy control freaks known as Utilities. That finally happened in the Election a couple of weeks ago,

        Florida voters are becoming much more alert to the deceptive tactics used by lobbyist and State Legislators-(handmaidens of the utilities) to block of slow walk the roll out solar rooftops. Florida voters rejected in an overwhelming fashion Amendment 1 which was written is such a convoluted way that it looked like if you voted Yes your were Pro residential solar-when in fact, by voting yes you were giving total control to the Fl State Legislature.

        But, the Press exposed their hand-which was black indeed.

        Thus, now that the market is forever Open, Tesla is now moving forward aggressively post election and post acquisition of Solar City to expand in Florida-Starting in the Orlando area.They will add their solar shingles and Power Wall in a few months.

        Also, St. Pete-the opposite side of the State from Orlando recently voted to go totally Wind/Solar.

        I live in Florida’s 5th largest city, Hialeah-Miami Dade Municipality, with an Official population just under 700,000-maybe 1/2 of the actual residents as census always fails to capture the large unregistered population.

        Discussion are active in looking at microgrids and community scale projects.

        But, now that the starting gun has sounded, we will soon witness the scams, the high pressure sales tactics on the elderly homeowners (‘Slams’ they’re called), and just plain fraudulent companies (the path is sluen with fraudulent roofing companies. You can bet on it.

        South Florida (often referred to as that quaint little country right next the USA) is a frontier oozing with the heavy grease of political corruption, political bribery, and the wry smile given to the best scam of the year.. there is actually a contest. A lovely bunch of bananas is frequently thrown the front steps of City Hall.

        That being said, the market is starving for a third party consumer protection group that would help with standards, screen prospective installer, establ certification programs–so on.

        let’s stay in touch

      • Greg Hudson

        Hi Chris. What 3 / 4 products are you referring to ?

    • Greg Hudson

      G’Day Sophie. I watch quite a few house ‘flipping’ shows from the USA, and noticed that not one has ever had solar panels, then I think I figured out why… The roofs seem to be mostly thin bitumen? based shingles, which weigh virtually nothing. Consequently, the roof trusses holding up the roof don’t appear to be very strong. This is the opposite of what we have in Australia. The roof trusses have to be built to support heavy concrete tiles (even if the roof is corrugated steel, which is very light in comparison to tiles). These ‘strong’ trusses have no trouble holding up solar panels, whereas the ‘light’ trusses I have seen probably would not be strong enough to support solar panels (excluding the spanish style houses in CA with terracotta tiles).

  • solarguy

    The only thing wrong with the CEC’s approved retailer program is that it’s so damned expensive to get on board the program and so discriminates against the smaller business who sell good gear and good installs.
    I have people tell me they used a big company who where CEC approved retailer’s and got shit jobs done, so no guarantee of anything.

    • Rod
      • solarguy

        Rod, I’m happy for your experience and that’s the way it should be. There are so many problems with this industry and I haven’t got time to list them now.
        The only components that are CEC approved are Inverters and panels, not the switch gear etc. Also some these approved retailers use cheap contract installers, who use cheap gear and perform shit installs to maximise profits.
        One of the main criteria to becoming an approved retailer, is if you can afford the fee. A small business like mine can’t afford it, but we do excellent installs using quality gear and look after our customers.

      • Greg Hudson

        I’ve had the opposite experience with Solar Quotes… They claim to give you 3 installers to choose from. I had only ONE contact me. What I asked him for was a quote including 2 ‘strings’ one for NW facing, and one for NE facing panels, you could hear a pin drop. (doh) I also asked for the quote to be battery compatible. His comment: You don’t ‘need’ a battery (this is, after I recomputed in my brain what he was saying in his strong Indian accent). Eventually he told me my roof would only support 6 panels. (I have no idea how he came to that figure). A similar call to Natural Solar, and they sent me an image via email with the panel placement for my approval (12 panels BTW). Even that could have been improved by a small margin, however was much more realistic than the 6 panels the first person quoted me. He (#1) also didn’t give me a price for the install either. Very disappointing. Natural Solar were the opposite, with a PowerWall 2 and Reposit ready system etc etc… Price was double what I was expecting, but was much larger (panel wise) than #1 quoter (or non quoter as it turned out). I don’t know how much the solar companies pay for referrals from Solar Quotes, but I’m guessing it is not a small amount. Are they getting their money’s worth? I have no idea. I guess that depends on their conversion rate, and how uneducated their clients are.

        • Rod

          From memory Solar Quotes followed up later so hopefully you let them know about the dodgy quote.
          Yes, I only had 2 responses but Goliath Electrical here in Adelaide bent over backwards for me.
          I was wanting to put and oversized E/W system on a rental.
          They worked with the tenant re past bills, expected savings etc. and their quote was good with Canadian panels and I wanted a Fronius inverter. They also submitted the Power networks paperwork.
          Anyway, the tenant couldn’t see the value in a 4.5kwp system for a $10 rent increase. Go figure.
          I felt guilty not going ahead.