Fairfax Article Beating Up The Solar Industry is Scaremongering (but Greg Hunt still fell for it)

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The Fairfax article published on 22 Feb 2015

The Fairfax papers’ coverage of the solar industry is usually spot on. But I think the latest article by Political Reporter Heath Aston is way off mark.

Greg Hunt must have salivated all over his iPad as he read the article yesterday morning. I can see him dribbling with delight at the rampant tales of rorted rebates and shonky solar systems.  And surprise, surprise: within a few hours of the article going live, Hunt announced:

“The poor installation of solar PV or installation of substandard solar PV has the potential to lead to fires with risks to property and human life. I’m sure you would agree that it is absolutely imperative that all panels installed must be of high quality and pose absolutely no threat to safety.”

I would like to ask Hunt how he thinks that it is possible to mandate that a piece of electrical equipment must “pose absolutely no threat to safety”.

Greg, I’ve got news for you: I’ve signed off on risk assessments on everything from nuclear reactor control systems to kettles. Everything has an inherent risk. Especially if it makes or uses that stuff called electricity. Yes – there will always be a risk that a solar panel will kill or injure you, damage your house or, God forbid, set it on fire.

But the same is true with phone chargers, electric toothbrushes, air conditioners, downlights, anything that carries a voltage that can kill you. Because sometimes things break – even good quality things like Airbuses or iPhones. The aim is to reduce that risk as much as practically possible. Please note that this is very different to having “absolutely no threat to safety”.

As far as I’m aware, after 1.4m installs (which is probably over 10m panels) there is one recorded case of an actual solar panel catching fire. (There have been other fires caused by faulty isolators – but that has got nothing to do with solar panel quality). That’s pretty good odds in my book. Compare that to the thousands of fires and scores of deaths caused by $2 downlights installed by some project home builders (who are rorting building star ratings  on a massive scale by the way).

So I’m sorry Greg, the report you’ve given the Clean Energy Council 3 days to write is not going to expose a solar industry racked by shonky installs. From what I’ve seen the Clean Energy Council Installation Guidelines and Australian standards mean that the average solar install is much safer than the rest of the wiring in a typical house. Yes – of course there are shit installers out there who shouldn’t hold an electrical licence, and solar business owners that are selling junk that won’t last. As there is in every industry. That’s the raison d’être that SolarQuotes.com.au exists – to help people avoid them.  But, as I’ve been saying for many years now – most solar installers are passionate about building an industry based on quality, safe installs and quality hardware. As Nigel Morris is quoted as saying in (only some versions) of the article:

“Is the industry perfect? Absolutely not. Do we occasionally have quality issues with product and installations? Yes, we do … There is evidence to say it is not endemic.”

Over the 6 years I’ve been in the solar industry I’ve seen the number of shonky companies reduce massively as the rebates and FiTs have become less generous. Four or five years ago it was a huge problem. But slowly and surely the ‘Lowest Price is a Red Flag’ message has been getting through to consumers.  In 2015, as long as you don’t go looking for the absolute cheapest system on the market, and do the most basic of internet research, you should end up with a good quality, well installed solar system that will last 25-35 years.

If Greg Hunt wants to use his position to protect public safety, he should ramp up the RET and close down the most polluting coal fired power stations that will kill and have killed thousands of innocent people through particulate pollution.

With that off my chest – let’s go through 4 of many things in the article that wound me up:

1) Implying that most Chinese Panels are crap

“…an explosion of cheap, mainly Chinese-produced solar panels that have flooded the market over the past five years that are failing to provide the 15 years of clean power expected. Installers in four states told Fairfax Media that the worst systems stopped working within 12 months, with others “falling apart” within two or three years.”

Jesus, this winds me up.

There’s a lot of anti-Chinese sentiment out there these days. And frankly, I think a lot of it is downright racist. But the fact that China churns out a lot of products that do not require highly-skilled labor, does not mean that all their products are crap. That’s just ridiculous.

Want a few examples?

My iPhone: Made in China.
My Macbook Pro: Made in China

And the same is true with solar panels. There are solar factories in China that deliver some of the highest quality panels available. Renesola and JA Solar are just a couple with impeccable reputations for quality.  And yes, of course, there are a number of small factories in China that produce junk, just as there is in every industry.

2)  Confusing readers about the Solar Panel Tiering system:

“A rooftop system in Melbourne attracts a $3705 rebate whether it is a low-quality “tier 3” product or a European-made “tier 1″ system made to last 25 years in extreme conditions of Australia.”

This implies, to me, that all European panels are Tier 1, and all Tier 3 panels are low quality.

Here’s a fun fact: I have always recommended that the safest way to choose a panel for the non-solar expert is to get a Tier 1 panel.

So what Tier panels do you think I have on my roof based on the international Tier Ranking report that I paid $4,000 for?

Tier 3!

Shock Horror eh?

I have Tindo solar panels on my roof. Tindo is a tiny solar panel manufacturer based in Adelaide that assembles their panels from other people’s solar cells, and has only been around for about 3 years. That is the classic definition of a Tier 3 solar panel producer.

But, I like to think I’m pretty clued up on solar panel quality. I have visited the factory, inspected the robots, looked at the flash tester calibration and researched their component suppliers. After all that I decided that the panels were probably going to perform well and last for decades. Plus I like to support local manufacturing (but gee, they were bloody expensive!).

What I am trying to say is this. Tier 3 does not always mean that a panel is low quality. It simply means that you really need to do your research before buying. As most of the solar panel buying public have not got the expertise, time or inclination to do that level of research, if they want a safe bet, they should insist on Tier 1 panels. Because it is hard for a crappy panel manufacturer to get ranked as Tier 1.  So it takes a lot of the risk out of the purchase.

There a a number of solar installation companies that have done this research for you, though, and they have been installing their favorite brand of Tier 2 or 3 panels for many years without a problem. If you want to go with one of those companies, then great! But do your research, as there are also companies selling crap Tier 3 panels, and claiming they are top quality.  If you want to go with a company that sells Tier 2 or 3 panels, make sure they have been around for many years and consistently use the same brand instead of constantly switching to whatever is cheapest at the time.

I’ll repeat myself one more time. A panel from a Tier 1 manufacturer is not guaranteed to better than a panel from a Tier 3 manufacturer. There are a small number of great Tier 2 and 3 panels around – if you know how to judge solar panel quality. But insisting on Tier 1 panels is the safest and simplest way I know of avoiding low quality panels. And on a 5kW system this peace of mind will only cost you about $500 more (or $20 per year over the life of the system!) .

3) Implying the STC scheme is not effective in delivering clean energy.

The basis of the headline and the tone of the article (that plays right into Greg Hunt’s hands) is that billions of dollars have been wasted on solar systems that will end up in landfill in a few years.

The STC program is based on the premise that the average solar system installed under the scheme will produce clean solar energy for 15 years.

A tiny percentage of solar systems will fail (and not be fixed), and will stop producing energy after a couple of years. But the vast majority of solar systems will last 20-40 years.  Failure rates of anything, when plotted, will follow the classic “bell curve”. The highest point of the bell curve gives the average lifespan of an installed solar system. For the STC program to be a policy failure, that point would have to be less than 15 years.

Even if 20% of solar systems stopped producing energy after 2 years and were never repaired (which is probably overstating the problem 10 times) and 80% of solar systems stopped working as soon as their performance warranty expired, after 25 years, the average system life would be over 20 years.

The STC scheme was designed very conservatively. If the average life of a solar system installed under the STC scheme is less than 15 years, I’ll eat my voltage meter.

4) Claiming the solar industry is “All but destroyed”

Around 4000 solar installers went to work today – the vast majority of whom were installing good quality product to stringent, frequently updated Australian standards and industry guidelines.  My guess is that most would argue that the industry, though very tough due to the constant squeeze on margins typical of a maturing industry, is still alive and kicking, thanks.

And the customers, many of whom are enjoying returns around 20% (even with current feed in tariffs) and tiny electricity bills seem to think the industry is serving them pretty well, thank you.

In every single industry that I can think of there is always someone who will sell you low quality junk to get under the next guy’s prices. This is not unique to the solar industry! The simple way for the public to avoid the junk is simply to understand that in solar, just like in whisky, air conditioners, computers or anything else for that matter – you generally get what you pay for.

About Finn Peacock

I'm a Chartered Electrical Engineer, Solar and Energy Efficiency nut, dad, and founder of SolarQuotes.com.au. My last "real job" was working for the CSIRO in their renewable energy division.

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