It’s a family affair at Springers Solar in Queensland. Commercial sales manager Eddie Springer gives EcoGeneration a rundown on how the Springers got into solar and shares his views on batteries and concerns about the Queensland government’s changes to the rules about who can and who can’t handle panels…

Tell us about your early days in solar. You started out supplying kit for caravans and camping, right?

My brother worked at a camping retailer and was getting lots of inquiries about fridges and running camping lights and so on. Meanwhile my dad had just sold a data and communications business and has an electrical background and my brother was ringing my dad every day. They put their heads together and decided to start a little retail business selling solar panels and batteries. Quickly after doing that they realised they needed to be able to install it, so we set up a workshop installing on RVs and caravans. We sold BP solar panels, which were made in Australia at the time.

When did you start installing on rooftops?

BP had a guy come out from the US who told us Australia’s five years behind the US; it’s not a cottage industry anymore. We left that conference deciding to get a business contractor’s licence. We’ve employed electricians ever since and then rode the wave of off-grid rebates, five-times multipliers for STCs, 44 cent feed-in-tariffs and government incentive programs.

How have customers’ expectations of solar changed over the years?

We’ve come through the whole cycle of early adopters buying 1kW systems for $14,000 where return on investment wasn’t even thought of. They wanted solar because they wanted to be the first and to reduce their carbon footprint. Now it’s an exercise in economics. Late adopters want to buy it purely on price, but it seems every customer also seems to know someone who had a bad solar system installed – so they know the dangers of cheap systems.

Do owners know much about how their systems are operating?

They can struggle. With older systems the monitoring was usually a screen on the inverter that nobody looked at. Now there’s online monitoring, apps and consumption data which helps customers and us, too. Older customers are very entrenched on just looking at their bill. If they see change in their bill they think the solar system’s got a problem – but the change could be from their usage, no their solar. I spend a lot of time telling customers the information I’m concerned about is the data off the inverter.

Is it hard to sell solar in Queensland with the price of wholesale electricity dropping?

The price of solar has dropped as well. It’s still a four-to-five-year payback up here. The really big stuff is harder to sell, because the wholesale price of electricity is so low. We don’t play in the megawatt system sizes. There is a sweet spot between 50kW and 250kW solar systems where the paybacks are still excellent.

Are you happy with the margins you earn or is it a tough industry?

It’s tough, but the market is buoyant up here. It is busy. Our biggest struggle at the moment, and I think it is industry-wide across Australia, is finding quality guys to do the work.

Has the Queensland government’s rule change over who qualifies to handle solar equipment affected you?

We don’t subcontract our work; all our installers are employees. Two-thirds of our workforce is probably electricians and apprentices, and one-third labourers. Electricians do all the wiring, so it’s not as much of an issue. It’s definitely an issue for the guys on the big projects. Their ratio would be more geared to labourers and less to electricians.

Do you install much battery storage?

The Queensland government incentives have put a real spike in battery sales: a $3,000 battery rebate on 2,500 batteries, $6,000 interest-free loans for batteries and up to $10,000 loaned interest-free for solar and battery. Yes, we’re doing a fair bit of storage.

Do battery buyers know what they’re doing?

Customers who are buying storage at the moment are like the customers who bought the 5kW system for $50,000. They want it because they want it. They know it helps keep the lights on if the grid goes down, but the monetary savings are not at the forefront of their minds. We ask customers: why do you want to buy a battery? If they say: I want to self-consume more power at home, well that’s a good reason to buy one. If they say: I want to save money, well, if that’s what they want then we’ll sell them a bigger solar system. The economics of a battery don’t stack up.