Solar panel installations are growing, but consumers have little recourse if things go wrong

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Just two short years after Wayne Minett forked out $12,000 for solar panels, he made the tough call to rip them off the roof.

Their system had been plagued with issues from the beginning and they barely saved any money on their electricity bill.

But the final straw was a phone call from the local power network saying his set-up wasn’t working at all.

“The power provider said: ‘Your inverter is not working, there’s no power coming back to the grid’,” Mr Minett said.

The inverter is the crucial piece of equipment that converts rooftop solar output into electricity that can be used in the home.

“I went out to have a look at it. It was all completely off. There was nothing on the screen,” Mr Minett said.

“I tried a few ‘turn off, turn on’, reset things. Nothing happened.”

Mr Minett’s wife Sam watched on as he tried to get help from the company they bought the panels from, only to find they had gone out of business.

Mr Minett even tried to track down the German company that had made the inverter.

“I rang the facilitator, [they were] nowhere to be found. I googled the maker of the inverter, [in] Germany, nowhere to be found,” Mr Minett said.

“I rang the ombudsman, he or she said it’s not to do with them, ring Consumer Affairs, they were apologetic but said ring the ombudsman.”

Ms Minett was just as frustrated.

“I was getting angry, Wayne’s getting angry, and I’m suggesting to ring up so-and-so and he says, ‘I’ve had enough’,” Ms Minett said.

Mr Minett searched his local area of Cranbourne, in Melbourne’s south-east, to find a business that could remove the 5-kilowatt system.

He simply wanted the panels gone.

“I didn’t want anything to do with it whatsoever,” Mr Minett said.

“[I thought] we’ll get back to how we had it and I’ll pay the loan off and just consider it as a lesson learnt.”

‘Really bad customer service’

Australia is in the midst of a renewable energy transformation: a record 334,000 homes and businesses put panels on their roofs last year.

But with the fast growth, problems have been emerging.

Adelaide resident Trisha Drioli is among those who have signed up for rooftop solar only to have to contend with difficult issues.

She lists a range of problems she’s faced over the past seven years, including big delays and problems with her installation and billing.

“Signing a contract deposit on a system that was inexpensive but never arrived, signing off on a top-of-the-range system which, a couple of years later, broke down,” Ms Drioli said.

“Really bad customer service when the breakdown did occur, [and then] incorrect installation of the battery.

Ms Drioli said she was dealing with a complicated web of retailers and regulators and was made to feel as if she was an annoyance.

It’s taken a lot of time and at times I’ve felt really worried about things and wondering, you know, [about] the expense and the cost and whether we’ve done the right thing,” she said.

“I’ve had to spend a lot of time writing emails and making phone calls.

“It’s not what I expected to have to do to make it work, and the whole time that I’m doing that, I’m thinking, ‘there must be a lot of people out there who just don’t have the time or energy to be doing this’.”

Ms Drioli’s energy company said it has since reimbursed her for the delay, and that in this case, the delays were wholly outside the customer’s control.

Last year,  Federal Energy Minister Angus Taylor ordered a review into the sector amid concerns about the accreditation of installers and other consumer issues like sales practices and poor-quality installations.

The review is yet to be released and the minister declined the ABC’s request for an interview.

“I don’t know the timing or the details of the solar sector review,” said Darren Gladman from the Clean Energy Council, an industry group which represents about 50 per cent of solar retailers and installers.

“We welcome initiatives by governments to raise the bar on standards for solar, because we know that in order to have a 100 per cent renewable grid, we have to keep on improving the standards.”

Regulators field complaints about solar

Every year, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) fields more than a thousand complaints about solar.

While Australian Consumer Law is generally robust, there are concerns people having problems are not getting the help they need.

ACCC deputy chair Delia Rickard described it as a steady flow of complaints.

“The big ones really are misleading representations about what you’re actually purchasing, what value you’re going to get from it, as well as real concerns around faulty installations,” Ms Rickard said.

Where a consumer is entitled to a refund, replacement or repair, then the provider — the retailer — should give it to them.

“But if they refuse, it’s very difficult for regulators to go to court to enforce the law. At the moment, we have to prove that they’ve misled consumers.

“The ACCC argues that it should be a breach of the law to fail to provide a consumer guarantee that’s owed.

In Wayne and Sam Minett’s case, they had few options after they found out the retailer they had bought their solar panel system from had gone out of business.

Wherever I went to, whoever I rang, no one told me ‘we can help you’ or ‘ring this number’ or ‘go there’,” he said.

“It was a complete run-around each time.”

The Energy and Water Ombudsman of Victoria (EWOV), Cynthia Gebert, would like to be able to help people having problems with solar.

The trouble is, her scope is limited to traditional energy retailers who are members of the Ombudsman scheme.

“We can deal with the things that most people would assume you can: high bills, payment plans, concerns about disconnection, supply delays and getting supply, supply quality,” Ms Gebert said.

“But it’s the newer products and services like solar batteries, peer-to-peer trading, electric vehicles — they’re the sorts of issues that we can’t deal with.”

About a third of the complaints made to her office can’t be resolved because they fall outside the Ombudsman’s remit, leaving consumers on their own.

The Ombudsman is now actively considering expanding her jurisdiction so that she can deal with complaints about solar and batteries.

“One of the challenges I think all regulators in this space are facing is that the market is shifting and changing rapidly,” Ms Gebert said.

“We need a consumer protection framework that is nimble enough to be able to adapt to the changes in the market.

“We’re talking about solar now, but in a couple of years it will be other products and other services.”

Mr Minett agrees there should be a clear path for people who need help with their solar system.

It was stressful because we felt we had nowhere to go for help, advice, anything,” Mr Minett said.

“We were stuck with it.

Poor installations ‘common’

Luckily, Wayne Minett was able to find a local business willing to help him, even if the authorities could not.

He was hoping to get his solar panels taken off the roof, but local installer Kevin Schafer convinced him that a new inverter and some other modifications would do the trick.

“The inverter had been installed on a west wall in direct sunlight, so it had been exposed to the sun and the heat,” Mr Schafer said.

“That’s a poor installation practice.”

Mr Schafer is an electrician who turned his hand to solar installing almost eight years ago.

He has seen plenty of poor installations.

“The most common issues are inverters in the wrong place, the way that the cabling is brought in to the DC isolators,” he said.

“So the isolator’s filling up with water or failing, which can cause them to burn out.

“Poor installation practices on the roof — so not using the right types of fixings to make sure that the system is solid and secure on the roof.”

He believes there needs to be more training before someone can become a qualified installer.

“If you’re a qualified electrician and you’ve never done solar before, you can go and do six days of training certification and you really don’t know the first thing about what you’re doing,” he said.

He thinks there should be more on-the-job training before people can install systems without supervision.

I think on-the-job training or having a level of experience, so completing a certain number of hours in the industry, installing solar.”

Mr Gladman said the Clean Energy Council was open to discussions about further training.

“There is a range of training opportunities that installers can take up,” he said.

“The question of whether we could require more training before installers are approved is one that we’re open to having.”

Industry agrees with calls for greater consumer protections

The Energy and Water Ombudsman of Victoria, Cynthia Gebert, had been so concerned about solar complaints that she decided to investigate the issue further with the help of the Australian National University.

“There were some people that were really positive about their experience … but there was a high level of frustration that when things went wrong, it was too hard to get it fixed,” Ms Gebert said.

The research lists a range of possible measures, including a compensation scheme of last resort for customers left out of pocket through the fault of their provider and unable to get money back through other means.

It also says the jurisdiction of the Energy and Water Ombudsman of Victoria could be expanded, and that “Buy now, pay later” finance and unsolicited sales should be excluded.

[Customers] don’t want to have to deal with a lot of complexity of contractual relationships, [it’s] difficult understanding who they need to talk to about which part of it, they just want it to work,” Ms Gebert said.

“That says a lot to us around what the potential … impediments might be to customers actually in the long term, engaging in different products and services if they just want it to work and they just want it to be easy and that’s not the experience they have today.”

Mr Gladman agreed that there could be better consumer protections.

“There’s definitely a lot of areas where we could improve,” Mr Gladman said.

He said it was critical for consumers to do their research and to find a retailer approved by the Clean Energy Council.

“The reason for that is if something does go wrong and you follow up with the company and you don’t get satisfaction, you can bring your concern to Clean Energy Council,” he said.

“The CEC has a voluntary code of best practice, which covers more than 50 per cent of the market for sales volume.

“Nevertheless, it’s voluntary and not every company has chosen to sign up.

“When a company that’s signed up to the best practice code does the wrong thing by the customer, Clean Energy Council can take action — and we do.

“Where there’s a problem with a company that hasn’t signed that code, then we’re not really well placed to intervene on behalf of the customer.”

Mr Minett said having an ombudsman look into his case would have helped him, and he also supports the idea of a compensation scheme of last resort.

“If there was somewhere you could get some help or compensation for being ripped off, we probably wouldn’t have thought about getting it uninstalled,” he said.

“We probably would have thought, ‘OK, let’s get it fixed and keep going with it’.”

By national consumer affairs reporter Amy Bainbridge and the Specialist Reporting Team’s Lucy Kent (Original ABC Article)

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