Since 2013 Melbourne-based social enterprise Positive Charge has helped out with more than 10,000 inquiries about solar from householders, including the perplexed and gullible.

Solar looks simple. And solar salespeople can make it sound like a sure thing. But there can be a vast difference between a good system and an overpriced one that is poorly matched to requirements. Most consumers wouldn’t know, of course, which is why not-for-profit groups that offer advice can be such a help.

“We get a lot of calls from pensioners who get bamboozled by quite aggressive salespeople,” says Positive Charge communications and community engagement lead Lucy Best (pictured). “They are given unrealistic expectations of what they can save.”

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The group has also run clean energy campaigns and aided the installation of 1,500 solar PV systems via a council-sponsored procurement bulk-buy program.

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Positive Charge recommends one solar supplier and installer to consumers, “although they don’t have to go through our supplier for us to give them advice,” Best says. A supplier and installer are chosen annually via a tender procurement process, and must be endorsed by the Clean Energy Council. All recommended solar system components are assessed by the Alternative Technology Association. The group deals with 15 councils in Victoria and eight in NSW.

Best has a few good stories to tell about what she’s picked up from the public.

“There was one woman [with a 5kW system] who was with [a large retailer] and she was supposed to be on the premium feed-in tariff, but she was only being paid [for surplus energy] to a certain amount,” she says. “I had a look at her bill and saw they were only giving her 66c on the kWh only for the first two kWh a day. I said, ‘They’re not supposed to do that. They have to pay you the amount for everything, so let them know and if they don’t come to the table contact the Ombudsman.’”

About four weeks later Best answered the phone to hear the same woman has just received a cheque from her electricity retailer for $4,500.

Another story is from a chap Best spoke to who had reservations about a system installed by a large Melbourne-based company within the 10-day cooling off period. “He realised they were charging him $7,000 for a 2kW system, which was just astronomical,” she says. He asked for a refund, or at least a discount. “It went on for a year,” she says, until one day the customer’s deposit was refunded and the system has been left in place.

Slow down

If you listened to some salespeople you’d think there is always a rush to sign up. The gradual winding down over the next 15 years of small-scale technology certificates is being used by some as a good reason to agree to a deal quickly – or miss out. Best has to reassure callers the cost of delaying an investment in a home system from one year to the next just because of the 15-year phasing out of STCs is negligible. “It’s about helping people to make sense of what they’re being told,” she says. “It’s the little old ladies who call and say: ‘I’ve been told I’ll save $600 a quarter and I don’t even spend that much on my electricity bill.’ They feel very vulnerable.”

Some queries go to the very basics of solar. “We have to explain you’ve got to use the power when the sun is shining and you get it for free, because if you feed it back into the grid you only get 5 cents per kWh,” she says.

Calls about storage are on the rise, but the advice from Positive Charge is to take investment in a battery doesn’t always stack up. “It’s still a payback period over 15 years and a warranty on a battery might be 10 years,” she says. “Your incentive for doing it wouldn’t be financial.”

The transitional feed-in tariff in Victoria will fall from 27c/kWh to as low as 5c/kWh in 2017.

Best talks to ratepayers at battery information sessions organised by councils. One of the
most common misperceptions she hears about batteries at the events is that their inclusion in a solar system means the household is suddenly off the grid. “People don’t realise the conversation around batteries is to capture some of your solar rather than feed it into the grid, and that you would still be grid-connected,” she says. There is also confusion about the high cost of storage, and that some systems may require more than one battery.

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Modelling by Positive Charge used in presentations shows a 5kW solar system with 5kW of storage where some solar energy is exported during the afternoon and grid energy is used from about 11pm to 9am. Stored solar is used between 5pm and bedtime.

In the 2015-16 financial year Positive Charge aided in the installation of 750 systems, and between July and December 2016 total installs is 180. “There’s still an appetite for it,” she says.

Direct approach

The group has had terrific success here and there approaching households direct. One example is Wyndham, a newly developed part of south-west Melbourne which now has about 17% uptake of solar. And yet there is a downturn in residential solar that no-one can argue with. “Partly I think it’s because people are waiting, because they think batteries will become more affordable,” she says. “There are still plenty of roofs without solar.” The team occasionally mulls over why this could be. In sparsely populated rural-fringe areas, maybe it’s because the locals don’t drive past many properties, spot panels on rooftops and “want to keep up with the Joneses”?

There have been reports of doorknockers offering a council-sponsored solar bulk buy program eerily similar to the Positive Charge model, all the way down to a website with material copied and pasted from the group’s site. “We sent them a letter from a lawyer,” Best says.

The truth is it’s not that hard for solar newbies to check out credentials, especially using the Clean Energy Council’s resources. Some curious consumers are very well-researched, however, presenting analysis on past bills and comparative studies on Inverters and so on.

Another success was a program with Darebin Council where pensioners were offered the option of having solar installed with payment made over 10 years, included in their rates, at about $80 a quarter. In the first year of the scheme nearly 300 systems were installed. “They were only recommended for solar if estimated savings were greater than the cost,” she says. Savings on participants’ electricity bills have been about $130 a quarter. “We did find a lot of people in that position were quite low users, people living on their own, and it didn’t stack up.”

Positive Charge is an offshoot of the Moreland Energy Foundation, which consults with councils to help them achieve climate change strategy goals. Moreland Energy Foundation had conducted a bulk buy via Northern Alliance for Greenhouse Action, a consortium of councils, which was so successful that Positive Charge was set up to continue that work independently.

It is also big on energy efficiency measures, such as draught proofing and insulation and LED lighting, offering training to home and community care teams in councils and staff who conduct home visits for other not-for-profit organisations, such as Baptcare.

The group also took an independent grant of $50,000 for solar systems on four schools, matched with equivalent money from fund-raising. Sunny the Solar Bear, a dude in a polar bear outfit, came to schools and when the dust settled 80kW was installed. “Some of the schools didn’t need much hand-holding and some did,” Best says. “It’s very hard work.”