Campaign launched to root out solar cowboys

A campaign is being launched to crack down on “unscrupulous” installers of solar panels seeking to cash in on the confusion surrounding the Government’s Feed-in-Tariff (FiT) incentives.

The independent renewable energy website YouGen has developed the campaign after receiving a growing number of complaints from concerned consumers.

It has been backed by some of the most successful renewable energy companies in the UK including SunGift Solar, REN Energy, Source Renewable and Freesource Energy.

In total, more than 20 companies in the sector have pledged their support for the crackdown.

Cathy Debenham, Founder of YouGen, said the campaign was being launched today to coincide with the reduction in available feed-in-tariffs available for installations of less than 4kW from 43.3p/kWh to 21p.

The FiT rate for installations completed between December 12 and March 3 is currently unknown due to the Government’s ongoing legal challenge over an earlier High Court ruling that its proposed reduction to the rates was unlawful.

If the Government is unsuccessful in its appeal to the Supreme Court, the rate for this period will be 43.3p, but should it be successful it will revert to 21p.

Despite repeated warnings from industry bodies the Renewable Energy Association (REA) and Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS), many of the cowboy operators are selling on the 43p rate seeking to take advantage of the confusion in the consumer market.

The issue of tariffs is further complicated by the current consultation being undertaken into rates post July 1 which will almost certainly bring about two further cuts in the incentives available before the end of 2012.

Cathy Debenham said: “YouGen has received a number of complaints from consumers in recent weeks concerned that certain unscrupulous solar companies are telling potential customers that they would receive the maximum 43.3p rate. We have also seen many enquiries from consumers confused about the rates they should be receiving and how the rates will change later this year.

“As long as the Government’s appeal to the Supreme Court hangs in the balance there simply can be no guarantee that the 43.3p rate will hold, yet it seems there are a small number of cowboy operators who are willing to say anything for a quick sale.

“Consumers can feel quite intimidated at times in the face of a barrage of cold calling, leaflet dropping and, in some cases, door-stepping and the supposed deals being talked about can look extremely attractive.

“The vast majority of companies working in the renewable energy sector are highly reputable, trustworthy businesses, but unfortunately there are some whose conduct is so appalling that we felt it was important to speak out and hopefully help educate consumers on how to arm themselves with the best information to make an informed, confident decision on solar PV.”

YouGen has drawn up a consumer checklist for people considering a renewable energy installation. While some criteria will be specific to a particular technology, others apply across the board. In an ideal world, a personal recommendation is best, but as these technologies are not mass market yet, it is not always possible to ask family and friends for a name.

You can search the YouGen website – – to find a recommended installers in a local area.

1. If you want to benefit from the feed-in tariff or the renewable heat incentive (the Government’s financial incentives for renewable energy), you must ensure that both the installer you use, and the product they are installing are accredited under the Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS). No MCS means no subsidy, so check their credentials on the MCS website;

2. Find out how long they have been in the business, what experience they have, and whether they will do the work themselves or subcontract it out. If they do subcontract, check who will take overall responsibility for the job;

3. Ask whether the system they recommend is sized specifically for your site, based on occupancy and current energy usage, or whether it is a standard size. When you are considering the heat technologies ask how they have calculated the heat demand of your house (it’s worth looking out old energy bills, so you know what you’ve used in the past);

4. Ask for an estimate of how much the system will generate at your site – this is a requirement for any MCS approved quote;

5. Get at least three detailed written quotations;

6. Ask your installer for local case studies or to speak to some of their previous customers;

7. Never sign up on the day. Be wary of any salespeople who ask you to, especially if they offer discounts that depend on it. (This is against the REAL Code, which all MCS installers must sign up to);

8. If you are installing more than one technology, check that each installer understands the other technology and how they work together. Check whether they have done a similar installation before, and ask for references;

9. Once your system is installed ask your installer to show you how to use it, how the controls work, how it works with your existing plumbing or heating and how to get the best out of the system.

10. Check the warranties provided by the installer. This is another area where poor installers fudge their answers. Most installers offer a 10 Year insurance-backed warranty, but check the detail, they only usually reflect the installers’ own warranty, so if your installer only offers a two year warranty, their ’10 Year’ insurance-backed warranty is likely to only cover 2 years.