George Auchterlonie, director and installer at Renewable Energy Solutions Tasmania, has seen the solar sector rip ahead from where it was just 10 years ago.
You’ve been working in solar for 10 years. Can you tell us what solar was like a decade ago?
I got into it just before the boom. I had three crews on the road between 2012 and 2014. It was just crazy. It was all about speed and getting jobs done for mainland companies back in the early days. I didn’t really have my own client base back then. We don’t work for any mainland crowds anymore.
What drove the boom and how much did customers know about solar back then?
A lot of large companies had been slapped together on a promise of a quick dollar. The solar credit multiplier was still five-times, so there were really good rebates on offer. Solar was still reasonably expensive for the customer but because of the heavy rebates and good feed-in tariff offers it made sense. It was a perfect storm in some instances – there were a lot of sharks in the industry. It took off more than Australia and the industry were ready for.
The standards certainly weren’t there; the inspectors didn’t really know what they were looking at. There was no conduit through the rooves; you’d go along with a staple gun and clip the DC to any bit of timber you could find. As long as it looked neat, that was passable.
Do you think Angus Taylor’s idea of an inquiry into solar is warranted?
It’s probably a consideration that needs to be looked at for the industry. I don’t think the Clean Energy Council and the Clean Energy Regulator have managed to totally rein in the unethical side of solar. We’re seeing a lot less of it than we were up to about three to four years ago. We welcome anything that’s going to improve the reputation of the industry for customers.
What do you say to customers who have heard bad stories about solar?
We tell them three things: to choose an installer you’re happy with and make sure it’s a local installer; make sure the quality is there – you don’t need to pay for Rolls-Royce gear but you don’t want to pay for rubbish, and; make sure the price is on point and the payback period is within the five-year mark, give or take.
A good installer can talk around any concerns about rooftop fires, which was on the ABC’s 7.30 Report [in May 2019]. That put a bit of fear through the industry. But the industry is moving so fast that by the time it hits the media it’s old things that have happened. We’ve addressed a lot of the issues with fires with rooftop isolators through an improvement in the standard, not that I think isolators are a good thing per se. And I’d hate to go back to some of the old jobs I installed in 2011, 2012. There were no multi-hole cable glands for a start – you were just using a heap of silicon in a one-hole gland and doing it up.
Is solar a good energy solution in Tasmania, being so far south?
The fact is it’s off-the-scale awesome for three months of the year, because it’s daylight from 5am to 9.30pm, then it’s really quite good for six months and awful for three months.
Do you have an opinion about battery storage?
My personal opinion is you don’t put a battery on to save money. The payback period is not there yet. But if you have brown-outs regularly and need backup power, or you want to feel good about using your own power and helping the planet, then they might be attractive.
Any advice for other installers?
It’s important to stay up to date on products and any technology as best you can. It’s hard, because you can’t be everywhere, but it’s worth it.
Do you enjoy the job?
It’s a great job. It’s really nice to turn up with a heap of stuff in the back of your ute and trailer then put them all together and the customer’s producing their own power. You’ve created something, so it’s really rewarding. You’ve helped the customer and you’ve also helped the planet, albeit that small amount.