Minority report

There won’t be many readers of REI that haven’t cast their eyes over the recent Which? report which highlighted certain aspects of the way solar PV is sold. But how did the industry view the magazine’s findings? By Lu Rahman

The Which? research asked 12 certified companies to survey and quote on a house in the south of England and picked up on several areas that it felt showed failings. It found that using government guidelines and methodology, eight of the companies underestimated the time it would take for the system to pay for itself; seven of the companies didn’t take into account that the roof was in the shade; only two of the companies mentioned that the inverter would almost certainly need to be replaced within 25 years at a cost of £1000; and that government calculations for payback time don’t take into account where the house is located – eg Cornwall and Scotland which experience differing amounts of daylight.

With the report quickly leading to media stories of cowboy companies operating within the industry, many firms were dismayed at the whole industry being targeted as new double-glazing companies of the twenty-first century. Newspapers such as the Daily Mail, ever-quick to provide fodder to annoy the masses, picked up on the story, running the headline, ‘Great Solar Power Con’ accusing rogue salesmen of jumping on the green bandwagon. Sky News also picked up on the story, heightening the potential of damage to the sector. Of course, every sector has its failings, but how damaging were the reports to the overall effectiveness of the renewables market to get its message across?

Juan Romera-Wade, ceo of Krannich Solar UK, comments: “Greenwashing is not a new concept. There will always be a minority who discredit genuine environmental causes, be it recycling, reducing carbon footprint or the promotion of the endorsement of renewable energy. But sometimes we don’t help ourselves.

“Consumer group Which? recently uncovered evidence of mis-selling within the PV industry. Failings included overestimating potential income and pay-back period, neglecting to ask about household power usage before calculating savings and overlooking property location.

“Industry viability is dependent on safety and credibility. Such findings tarnish the solar power market, putting hundreds of reputable PV businesses at risk. In reality, the latest high efficiency domestic solar installations make a strong financial case for themselves. We don’t need to over-exaggerate.”

Romera-Wade recognises that while a handful of rogue installers are only interested in short-term gain, responsible companies believe in total consumer transparency. “For example under our new Krannich Care Code, a comprehensive record of phone calls, visits, surveys and correspondence is maintained and available to every customer.

Krannich ensures both its product and installation company is MCS-accredited. Romera-Wade adds: “We have adopted general business practices that are in the interest of the long-term development of the photovoltaic industry and work to advise end-users openly and honestly about the advantages and features of the various products we supply. This should set precedent.”

Chris Hopkins, managing director of Ploughcroft, the company which has recently secured investment from Deborah Meadon and Theo Paphitis on the Dragon’s Den,  sees the positives in the survey: “At Ploughcroft, we welcome the findings of the recent Which? report into the selling of solar electricity panels.

“Since the government introduced the Feed-in-Tariff as part of its Renewables Obligation, solar PV installations have gone through the roof and there is no sign of British homeowners’ appetite for solar dying down. As a multitude of solar installers does battle in a rapidly overcrowded market, it is crucial that homeowners can be confident the solar PV installer they choose to go with is reputable and will be giving them the best service possible.

Hopkins highlights the importance of MCS accreditation and adds that Ploughcroft’s installations are covered by the Trustmark Solarcare 10 year insurance backed warranty.

‘It is quite a basic thing, but it is vital that for every job you assess all key factors such as how much electricity you use, how much sunshine is available where you are, the size of your roof and how much you want to invest in your system. By sending the right people who are qualified to ask the right questions and do the right checks, then customers can feel reassured that they are getting the best advice from us,” he adds.

Stiebel Eltron’s Mark McManus also makes his feelings on the Which? report known.

There is no ‘myth’ – as one report stated – to how much money and energy that solar photovoltaic (PV) systems can save,” he says.

“There will be variables to the output such as the type of solar panels installed (there are four different types which differ in price and efficiency), weather, panel size and the direction they are facing.

“It is a fact though that they reduce energy bills, and with the government’s Feed in Tariff (FiT) incentive, generate a quarterly income that is guaranteed for 25 years. When you consider that the average payback is eight to ten years, the system then produces cash back to the property owner for over a decade. The FiT gives a payment for all the electricity you produce, even if you use it yourself, and additional bonus payments for electricity not used that you export into the national grid.”

The Which? investigation into solar PV installations has cast an unfavourable shadow over some practices of sales mis-information to consumers, but it has also shone the spotlight on good practice in the industry and where to find it, says ELECSA, one of the operators of the Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS) for contractors installing renewable technologies in domestic properties.Chris Beedel, certification director, ECA, says: “The Which? Report has lifted the lid on some practices that none of us want to see in our industry because it undermines public confidence. Those accredited to MCS are bound by an Office of Fair Trading (OFT) regulated code of practice which means they should give accurate assessments as to the estimate of performance output based upon the fundamentals raised in the report. These are the position of the property, its location in terms of hours on sunlight and, of course, the pitch of the roof, if that is where the installation is best suited.”The OFT code of practice is governed by the REAL (Renewable Energy Assurance Ltd) Consumer Code. This provides the guiding principles for selling smaller-scale low carbon renewable technology in people’s homes and is a requirement for MCS accreditation.

The REAL Assurance Scheme http://www.realassurance.org.uk/pdf/consumer-code.pdf stresses that members must not over-sell energy generating equipment to consumers and that before a sale is agreed they must provide customers with technical assurances and provide a credible estimate in line with MCS standards, as well as present the estimate in writing.

The code stringently governs the ‘Behaviour of Sales Representatives’ and stresses what performance information members must include in their estimates to customers, which must be provided in a format that is readily understandable by consumers and that comparisons for non-experts should be provided.

“To avoid danger of over-selling, members are advised to err on the side of caution when giving estimates,” says Beedel.

REAL has a stringent complaints process and ‘names and shames’ companies guilty of high pressure selling on its website.

“There is simply no-where to hide as MCS members are regularly audited and non -compliance will be subject to a full investigation and could lead to suspension of membership and MCS accreditation,” adds Beedel.

“The MCS is a means of providing the public with the confidence that the advice on their property and installation is accurate and in their best interests. Professional reputation as a contractor depends upon it because the majority of contractors are small to medium sized enterprises working in small towns and cities. To become associated with bad practice would be professional suicide.”

Beedel concludes: “Many consumers stand to gain from the government’s FiT scheme and it is a shame that a minority of companies can give the sector a bad name. The government has set ambitious targets to reduce fossil fuel use and in its latest review has made householders the primary focus of the cash on offer in order that more make the right choice and the right switch. They will only do this however if they can have faith in the people and products they are investing in.”