Meet the matchmaker that brings regional community renewable energy groups together with solar-curious locals.

The solar installation industry includes plenty of shadowy characters. One estimate at the end of 2016 was that nearly 600 installers had licences cancelled, suspended, surrendered or that had expired, or had no licence at all.

What are the chances for Mr and Mrs Jones on Smith Street who only want to cut their electricity bill and do something good for the environment? Picking an installer who can be trusted to provide them a quality system and sensible advice on storage starts to sound like a lottery draw.

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The hard way around this is for homeowners to gang together to get some sort of bargaining power, but that still leaves a wide margin for trust in explaining the technology.

A better solution has been engineered by NSW organisation SunCrowd, which taps regional community renewable energy groups for expert local knowledge on installers and then gees up locals close to commiting to a home system until they have the numbers to negotiate a bulk discount on the technology and installation costs.

It all turns into a bit of street party, with community events where technologies are revealed and expert guidance is provided to match householders’ energy needs. There’s even a “pick-up party”, where the gear is delivered and taken home for installation.

Group effort

There are about 80 different community organisations around Australia attempting to do investor-owned renewable energy projects, says SunCrowd chief energy officer Chris Cooper, but only four or five have succeeded in doing anything. “It’s not easy,” Cooper says. “It’s like a Rubik’s cube of problems you have to solve all at once,” he says, listing regulatory, technical, financial, investment rules, leadership and capacity on a shoestring, while getting the most out of volunteers with varying levels of experience.

Overall, participants will end up with an installation about 15-25% cheaper than the NSW market average. As important as the financial advantage, he says, is the provision of independent advice. “That’s what people are missing,” he says. “And hearing it from people who aren’t vested in the deal is strong.” All decisions on technology are vetted by experts. SunCrowd’s technical adviser is Glen Morris, the vice-president of the Australian Solar Council and vice-president of the Australian Energy Storage Council.

“We’re trying to offer good pricing in a trusted community environment,” Cooper says. “It might not necessarily be the cheapest on the market … because there are always going to be installers who are less than scrupulous.”

Solars installs are dropping and the market is fragmented. “There hasn’t been the consolidation I would have expected,” he says. “It’s very much a race to the bottom, ebay-style market where everything is price-driven. It’s not necessarily healthy.”

Sales are dropping, he suspects, because of eroding trust. “It’s a very technical sale and the fact it’s not a reoccurring sale means fly-by-nighters come in and can get away with being dodgy to the detriment of all the good guys in the industry.”

Some systems are so cheap “it seems to defy physics”.

Regional roundabout

A SunCrowd campaign can be good news for subcontractors that have the trust of community groups in the regions it targets. “They might be sole traders who struggle to get work but will end up with 30 to 40 jobs through a campaign,” he says.

In a recent southern NSW campaign SunCrowd worked with community groups GreenConnect in Wollongong, RePower in Shoalhaven, BM Renew in the Blue Mountains, Climate Action Now Wingecarribee in Southern highlands along with the Moss Vale Community Garden, and Community Energy for Goulburn. The first campaign in Newcastle was with Climate Action Newcastle.

SunCrowd chooses an area to target based on strong ties with community groups active in promoting renewable energy, so there’s a good chance events around bulk-buying solar and batteries will be a success.

Cooper started in the industry nine years ago as an energy auditor before moving into consulting as an energy economist at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney. He started the community energy organisation Repower Shoalhaven before setting out on SunCrowd.

Cooper reckons about 80% of participants already have solar, so the campaigns are often trigger points to add more solar and introduce storage into existing systems. “Generally their awareness of solar will be fairly good, but energy awareness is still quite low in the community even among early adopters.”

He hopes the NSW campaign will be taken up by 500-600 homes. SunCrowd had commitments from 330 households by late November, and 70-80% of customers are going with Australian-made solar. Suppliers that have presented to SunCrowd gatherings at country towns include Tesla Energy, Powershop, LG, Enphase and Reposit.

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SunCrowd organises storage education sessions of about an hour with audiences of up to 100, Cooper says, which gets the average punter “up to about 80% confident” on making a decision on investment in a home battery. “A lot of people don’t quite know what batteries are about until they come to our events,” he says. “Then they get all excited because they can see what batteries can do for them in the future, even if a lot of them can’t do it now.”

Storage will be important for the energy transition, he says. “We freely share our vision of the future energy system with people and they do get excited by that,” he says, alluding to the dawning age of a shared energy economy. “With batteries it’s more than critical people are getting the right understanding of costs and benefits.”

Often it’s a case of explaining why a battery won’t suit a household’s requirements. “Those people are really quite happy just to hear that advice.”