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Renewable energy installers need help to up their game

Man installing solar panels

Recent Which? research backs up our own findings at Energy Saving Trust – renewable energy companies aren’t giving the best advice to consumers. But it’s not as straightforward as it seems…

The Which? report on renewable energy companies showed that eight out of 12 installers underestimated the time it would take to pay itself back and seven didn’t explain that part of the roof was in the shade.

While these results may be worrying, they’re not entirely unexpected.

Regulators under pressure

In the 13 months since feed-in tariffs became available, uptake of electricity-producing technologies has already surpassed the previous government grant scheme – the Low Carbon Building Programme – which ran for four years. This rapid growth has placed the market under pressure and brought an influx of existing tradesmen into the green sector.

As the supply chain scrambles to keep up, it’s fallen to two industry-backed and government-approved schemes to help regulate the market. The Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS) sets industry standards for installers of small-scale renewables and the REAL Assurance Scheme covers all non-technical aspects of an installation, from pre-sale contact to post-installation services.

Our concern is that the rapid expansion of the small-scale renewable market has stretched the capabilities of both these schemes to safeguard the consumer against poor installation and customer service.

Better training is essential

It is also interesting to see that the Which? report echoes our own recent heat pump field trial report, which found that one critical aspect still to be addressed is training.

Throughout the UK, renewable energy training courses are on offer, designed to upskill existing plumbers and electricians in microgeneration technology installations. In the absence of a consistent standard, the quality of this training varies markedly, despite the work of organisations like SummitSkills, who are mapping current UK training courses to a National Occupational Standard.

It’s all too easy to blame the people installing the systems, but we found that installers themselves are concerned about the quality of training they receive. Training has tended to be manufacturer-led, rather than setting out an overview of the different setups for each microgeneration technology. Inevitably this leads to homeowners receiving inaccurate advice about the suitability or performance of a system.

We’re also worried about how installers are engaging with customers. The Which? report reveals instances where installers are using high-pressure sales techniques, something we hear through calls to our advice centres. This is strictly prohibited for any MCS-accredited installer, and yet it’s still happening.

How can the situation improve?

So what is the industry doing to put these wrongs right? We’re working with REAL Assurance scheme to safeguard customers at every stage. We will be publishing information on what information the installer should be providing, and how they’re expected to conduct their business activity.

We’re also working with industry stakeholders to develop agreed improvements to installation standards, based on empirical evidence. This industry-wide, government-backed, research-led standard has been recommended to the MCSBoard for immediate adoption.

For homeowners, we’ve developed a number of online tools and guidance materials to give homeowners who are considering an installation the information they need to make the best decision. The Energy Saving Trust cashback calculator, for example, calculates the expected performance of a system based on the householder’s data.

The Which? report points to clear lessons. As the small-scale renewable energy market grows at a phenomenal rate, it’s critical that industry works together to drive customer confidence and assurance. Installers and customers both need access to clear and impartial information, allowing them to make a balanced and informed choice of the right renewable energy for the right home.

Have you experienced any of the pushy sales tactics or misinformation highlighted here? Or have you had a good experience of solar PV companies? Are there lessons to be learnt from other growing industries?

Comments
Member

“While these results may be worrying, they’re not entirely unexpected”
“Our concern is that the rapid expansion of the small-scale renewable market has stretched the capabilities of both these schemes to safeguard the consumer against poor installation and customer service.”

– Why is it that all the industry research never “finds” that a large part of the problem lies with profiteering?
As in the warmfront and boiler scrappage schemes, the cost of parts and labour rocketed artificially for increased profits!

“we found that installers themselves are concerned about the quality of training they receive.”
– They would be when questioned on why they are selling/fitting panels where the roof is in the shade!
They, like many other industries, dont want to be accused of mis-selling.

Member
Bob W says:
24 June 2011

Hi
I am investigating installing solar PV panels on the flat roof of a building I rent out in south London. The location is ideal. Given the figures from Energy Savings Trust quoted by Which? (I get slightly less beneficial figures) the net return of £28k after a fixed term of 25 years from an investment of £16k seems to equate to an annual compound interest rate of 4+% allowing for no other costs over the lifetime of the project.
Smaller projects seem to be less attractive. Whilst these rates may be competitive at the moment, 25 years is a long term investment. Am I alone in seeing this as unattractive?

Member

Hi- Looking at the predicted returns including FiTs and bill savings you mention, I think it’s probably looking a worse investment than it actually is due to the fact that £16k seems too steep for a system of that size – perhaps even £6k too steep. I’d recommend you get a few quotes and then see what it looks like as an investment. A 25-year guarantee when you sign up now really makes for one of the most solid investments out there – but of course tap your system’s details into our calculator to double check when you’re given a quote!

Member

Sounds a bit on the high side with regards to the inital cost, but it will depend on scaffolding requirements etc.. Flat roof system will cost 5% 10% than angled roofs.

My system from PV Solar UK Ltd (http://freeelectricity4u.co.uk/) is making a healthy 11% return on investment at the moment from the feed in tartiff, energy savings and energy generation. It generating more than we expected during the long day light hours, although we do live in the Surrey, have a south facing roof, and no shading.
My advice is to focus on the company and payback years rather than efficiency on the panels or inverter. Why do you want a rolls royce sitting on your roof when a mini can do the job at half the cost?
“Solar is definitely working for me”!!!

Member
dolly says:
27 January 2012

No, No, NO! If you possibly can, go for buying your own panels. We were first attracted by a similar offer but then we found out that we were in a perfect position re south facing, no trees etc. We had our panels installed by Vital Energi Solar (John Phillips) and he was excellent. To fit 16 panels on our roof to produce the highest domestic energy ( just under 4 kwh) cost us £12,500…you seem to be quoted WELL over the odds. Get more quotes! Afetr speaking to our financial advisor, he pointed out that we were unlikely to get a return anywhere near that for the similar amount of money we had in stocks and shares. Therfore, we cashed all the ones we had to purchase the panels. As a result, our monthly payment to the energy company has reduced by 40% (although it will probably go up again during the winter months but not to it’s previous height) plus we have just received a cheque for £255 for the power generated since the end of September 2011! We think this is a very good rate of return on our investment and we have the benefit now. Hope this helps.

Member

My experience with Clear Sky Solar of Chelmsford, Essex was very good – must put them in Which Local !
I disliked the salesman but he offered a reasonable deal. I had used the Energy Saving Trust website and looked at whatever Which had to say so I was reasonably sure of what I needed, which helped. Encouragingly, the salesman made a point of checking for shading and used tables to work out roughly the amount of power I should expect given the angle and direction (facing east) of the roof and the amount of shading. The company then sent in a a design engineer to check the calculations and decide how and where the inverter should be connected into the mains. He then submitted a detailed plan of the property, panels and wiring for me to sign up to the contract. The scaffolding team and installation teams both arrived as planned and, a year on, the system has generated roughly the amount of power expected.

I was sufficiently impressed that I bought a second system for the west facing side of the roof. This is not generating quite as much as calculated despite having slightly higher output panels. I suspect that this is because cloud often bubbles up during the afternoon.

Overall, I expect to get close to 30,000kwh p.a from the two systems, yielding around an index linked £1300p.a. plus some free electricity from my £23k investment. If I get low maintenance costs; a steady increase in electriciy prices; only a slow decline in the output as the panels deteriorate; and partial return for my capital if the property is sold then it could turn out to be at least as good an investment as a typical 5-year building society bond. That is a lot of “if’s”, but even if things do go wrong, I’m still keen to do my bit for global warming.

Member

Great to here you’ve had a good experience. It’s often said that solar PV potentially represents a better investment than a building society, but it goes without saying that to achieve this, the whole process in acquiring the technology needs to be straight forward and honest. Ultimately, mis-selling and poor practice can be weeded out by the power of householders – get a selection of quotes and do your research, and PV really is a good bet for reducing your reliance on the grid while seeing very decent payback.

Member
eco says:
27 June 2011

Hi there,

FiTs are really great simulus for renewable electricity production…but it’s a favour to a special ones…..and to have 25 years guarantee FiTs is not a realistic…..
Comon…what is the real life of such installations?

Why the Government has to GUARANTEE for such a long period and to pay preferential price to the producers which have alreday used EU and grand money to build such parks? Is it because of the real economy and clear environment issues??

Why there is no FiT for the small producers (as family home or the industry companies which use the RES for their needs only)..if we want to be green society …so let allow all of us to use any kind of renewable stimilus…

Everyone says: It’s a green energy – without emissions, with a zero carbon footprint…? But what is the true? It’s not the zero emission and great environmental technologies? There are several reports that could prove that, but still are not so popuplar…

We have the same law..and thanks God it has been changed recently… You know what happen… it’s become a really modern to build Wind and PV parks…everyone started to build such parks….so lots of lands have been transformed to a building areas….It wasn’t good for the agricultural producers, animals and etc.. the lectricity grid didn’t have the capacity to connect all these new MWs….
Is it a real the best RES electricity market issue?