How bulk-buying solar is paying off for communities in Victoria

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One of the many ways to boost renewables is to offer households a bulk-buy price for solar from an organisation they will trust.

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“What has been missing from the emergence of this “decentralized” energy system – which will ultimately turn the current centralised economic model on its head – has been concrete action at community level….this is now starting to change rapidly.” – RenewEconomy, March 10, 2015

cloud-over-solar-panel-flickr-Pieter-Morlion-320x214One of the many ways to boost renewables is to offer households a bulk-buy price for solar from an organisation they will trust. With some seed funding and adherence to a few basic rules, community groups could run successful bulk-buys all over the country.  Some have of course –especially in the Goulburn Valley area of Victoria – but it’s been quite ad-hoc to date.

Here’s what a few friends and I managed to achieve in the Mount Alexander Shire (pop. 18,400) in central Victoria in the latter half of 2014.

In June,  we established the not-for-profit Hub Foundation Castlemaine as a vehicle for action on climate change.  Shortly after, we launched the Mount Alexander Solar Homes (or MASH+) project. The project offered householders a quality solar system  and a plus: an energy efficiency voucher for  redeeming at a  local environment shop, an energy assessment in the home and, after 100 systems were installed, a free system on a community building.

We employed a `green’ marketing person to help design and implement a marketing plan. We then quickly signed up local partners, including the Shire Council, the local paper, the IGA, a real estate agency, and around 20 other smaller businesses and community groups. We didn’t ask for money; they only had to display our posters in the window,  put leaflets on counters and, in the case of the community organisations, run publicity in their newsletters.

The launch was a simple, outdoors affair attended by the Mayor and 20 or so people involved in renewables in the region. To its credit, the paper ran a two page spread –including a great photo – which attracted a lot of attention.

A few days later, two information evenings were held in the Town Hall, with the Mayor presiding at both. Around 150 enthusiastic people attended and many signed up on the spot. A week later similar well-attended meetings were held in the nearby towns of Maldon and Campbells Creek, with Council again providing halls  and refreshments free of charge.

At the same time we ran prominent adverts in local papers, distributed a flyer to around 80% of letterboxes in the Shire, developed a racy, informative website and put large colourful banners on the Town Hall and another prominent local building.

The local paper also welcomed my offer to write a weekly 500 word column titled Solar Matters over the 10 week marketing period.  Several thousand people were thereby introduced to the news from Renew and other sources and encouraged to think about solar for their own house.

After two months of intensive marketing, we had 360 expressions of interest to pass over to the installer we had appointed.  200 installations took place over the following six months. As houses and renovations are completed  over the next few months, the final total is expected to rise to around 225.

Whilst the number who finally committed was a bit lower than we expected, the outcome has been very encouraging given the paid and voluntary effort involved. The project accounted for an impressive 65% of total installations in the last four months of the year and the percentage of houses with solar in the Shire has risen from 18% at the end of 2013 to 24% today.

As a result,  the Shire is equal second in the solar stakes in Victorian LGAs. Only Indigo Shire, which contains the very green areas of Yackandandah and Beechworth, with 28% of houses with rooftop solar, is ahead of us.

Incidentally, it appears from comparing CER data with our installation numbers that virtually all the installations were additional; we weren’t merely  cannibalising installations which would have taken place anyway.  Our customers people needed much more than a phone call from India before making the decision to go solar.

Currently a new MASH Stage 1.1 is being rolled out to the 100 or so households which signed up after the MASH 1 closing date. This is expected to result in another 60 households going solar.

In May we plan to get really serious again and launch Stage 2 with all that we have learned from earlier stages taken on board. By early 2016 we expect to raise the percentage of solar households to the Indigo level. After that, we’ll be aiming for 50% by 2018.

The marketing and admin costs for MASH 1, up to the point of handing details over to the installer, were around $20,000.  This amounted to around $2 per tonne of carbon avoided.  Future stages should cost much less as we learn from our mistakes.

In MASH 1 we didn’t claw back any money at all as we had some philanthropic seed funding. From now on, however, we are putting ourselves on a more sustainable footing by earning an average of $200 from each installation.  As a result, MASH 2 should bring in enough to cover our costs and leave a bit for next time.

The biggest source of discontent amongst customers has been the high costs of inspection and the rejigging of the meter for the feed-in-tariff. Origin’s oft- repeated statement that this may cost up to $765 gets a lot of people worried, especially when that’s added to the $200 the installer must pay his own inspector. It’s one of the barriers to solar which needs reform.

And the essential 10 learnings from the project?

  1. A trusted, not-for-profit, local organiser is very appealing to people.
  2. It makes good sense to conduct a tender to choose the solar installer. Be wary of trying to negotiate a good price with just one local  supplier; it can result in tears.
  3. The tender document should specify the need for good customer relations software and staff to operate it. It should also allow you to survey customers to make sure they’re satisfied and to obtain useful feedback for next time.
  4. Particular attention should be paid to the contract with the installer. Consider employing a lawyer pro bono to draft it.
  5. A great deal of  credibility is gained by having the support of the local Council, major businesses,  the media  and leading community organisations.
  6. Banners, at around $400 each on prominent buildings, including the Council offices, provoke a lot of interest as does a regular column in the local paper.
  7. It’s  worth seeking a committed professional to do the website.
  8. Whilst it’s quite exhilarating to experience the sort of response we’ve had, there are definitely some disappointments for the unwary.  30-40% of people  who express interest drop out for a wide variety of reasons and some people in and around the solar industry may be threatened by a newcomer in their midst.
  9. Solar householders have potential to be significant agents for change, for example by helping with marketing in their immediate neighbourhoods. We’re hoping to tap into that in Stage 2.
  10. When the price of carbon returns to a realistic level, there’s  surely potential for an enterprising public or private funding body to promote solar in this way.   Or maybe small not-for-profits like ours could spring up in other towns and cities to do much the same as we’ve done?

We now want to freely share our experience and learnings with other organisations keen to run solar bulk-buys.  Go to: hubfoundation.org.au

Neil Barrett is director of The Hub Foundation

 

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5 Comments
  1. David Osmond 4 years ago

    Awesome work Neil

  2. Pedro 4 years ago

    A great idea with serious pitfalls. My only concern is who wears the responsibility of potential future warranty claims? Just about all solar gear these days have 5-10 year warranties with 25 year performance warranty on the panels. I very much doubt a solar install company who is essentially working for wages would be very interested in sorting out a failed inverter if they did not design or sell the system. If you do not want to pay a fair price for a quality system then expect zero service when a problem crops up.

    • Daniel Ball 4 years ago

      Unfortunately I’ve seen it many times and agree with Pedro. If cutting of costs were made it will be interesting to hear updates to your learnings over time. Well done for your achievement to date.

  3. Neil Barrett 4 years ago

    Thanks for comments everybody. Prices can be very competitive because the installer/retailer is buying in large quantities, has more certain work going over several months and is installing multiple systems in the same local area. Re risk, dealing with a local installer well- known to most of the customers and with highly reputable companies with quality products (Trina and ABB Aurora) lowers risk a great deal.

  4. Mark Wakeham 4 years ago

    Fantastic work Neil, great to see incredible community innovation in regional Victoria. There’s a lot to be pessimistic about in the climate space, but the efforts and ingenuity of community groups pioneering new renewable energy and energy efficiency programs is really inspiring.

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