Panels are only one part of the offering to C&I customers who may have a bit to learn about their energy needs, says Echo Group’s Matthew Foster.

The renewables sector shares its business with some players who run what can be called “diversified energy portfolios”. EcoGeneration has recently profiled the commercial and industrial solar business arms of AGL and Origin, for instance, who we all know operate coal-fired power stations. EnergyAustralia is another member of this league, on the one hand managing huge coal generation assets towards their inevitable retirements and on the other hand watching over PV design and install business Echo Group, which it bought in 2020.

Some people might call this “greenwashing”, where a company is seen to promote its clean credentials ahead of the grittier stuff. If they want to say that, then fine. The fact is that the energy incumbents, these guys with the diversified portfolios, are laying out a hell of a lot of solar for businesses around the country. As consolidation continues in the C&I solar sector, their market share will likely grow.

According to data from solar consultancy SunWiz, Echo Group completed 9.28MW of rooftop solar in the 12 months to June 30, including 6.15MW as systems between 15kW and 100kW.

Echo Group Australia general manager Matthew Foster says the key to growing business in the competitive C&I field is to explain solar’s part in the energy equation while keeping a close watch on equipment costs and the market for skilled workers.

It looks as though it will be a record year for C&I solar. What problems do your customers want you to solve and where have they heard about what solar can do?
Matthew Foster says it’s crucial to explain safety design principles to customers.

Our customers, like everyone, are struggling with the pressures of managing a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and the increasing risks associated with climate change. Uncertainty often drives a focus on risk management and the need to look at problems through a different lens. In this context, solar, along with batteries and energy efficiency solutions, offers a compelling solution to control energy costs and sustainability outcomes. Our customers are now exploring alternate energy options to the point where repeat business with happy customers is becoming a significant driver of our growth.

What are some things you have to explain to them about solar?

The solar industry is reasonably complex with lots of nuances across products, design, safety and financial outcomes. As a result, we need to work closely with our customers to understand their needs and tailor solutions to best meet their requirements.

Providing background and explaining the different federal, state and local council rebate schemes is becoming increasingly important with recent rebate price volatility, scheme changes and additions. Demonstrating our expertise and developing trusting relationships is critical to navigating this often complex and changing space. 

Finally, we speak to customers about the various safety procedures we adopt for each and every installation we undertake. Safety design principles are something customers rarely consider despite regulatory requirements and enforcement increasing across the industry. This is becoming more crucial, because for many customers maintenance is often a post-install consideration, but by then it can be severely compromised if safety in design principles are not adopted with potential risks to installers, customer and staff during and after the install.

Do you ever help them work out where they can save energy?

Absolutely, we work with customers through their bills and energy usage to recommend the best clean and efficient energy solutions to reduce their usage. Our energy freedom model takes a holistic approach to energy management. We focus on leveraging economic energy efficiency measures, such as LED lighting, before generating and storing your own energy through solar and batteries. This combined approach often delivers a far superior outcome for the customer.

What size systems are most popular and why?

Currently 99kW systems offer the best return on investment outcomes for many customers, but this is rapidly changing with other rebates and incentives improving the economics of larger systems that can generate substantially better sustainability and energy saving outcomes. The growing range of incentives available have encouraged the uptake of larger systems because of compelling ROIs.

Can you keep up with demand?
A 1MW system in Craigieburn, Victoria.

We have a well-resourced team with the ability to scale and we have recently delivered a number of multi-site projects for government and large corporates. We have already scheduled our significant pipeline of work through to the end of the year, as we anticipate our competitors will be scrambling to install projects once covid lockdowns and restrictions are lifted. In addition, the constantly changing rules and requirements related to covid are likely to continue to disrupt activity in our industry and we have developed a number of contingencies to ensure impacts to our installation pipeline are minimised. 

Are there enough skilled installers?

Finding installers who meet our requirements to deliver a safe, quality customer experience can be challenging. We have a dedicated sub-contract management team who work closely with our install partners to ensure our quality and service consistently exceeds customer expectations. We also have a dedicated inhouse installation team where we create career pathways for apprentices through to CEC-accredited installers and beyond.

What type of storage projects have you been working on?
This job in Frankston, Victoria, was part of a national rollout of 600kW.

We have significant experience in residential and commercial battery and solar solutions. In addition, we are a major install partner for our parent company, EnergyAustralia, who are actively rolling out a $0 upfront battery-and-solar program for residential customers in NSW. We anticipate this program will be extended to the SME market in the future. Finally, we work closely with our colleagues at EnergyAustralia who hold the rights to charge and dispatch energy from the Gannawarra Energy Storage System (a 25MW/50MWh Tesla Powerpack battery) and the Ballarat Energy Storage System (30MW/30MWh asset comprising a Fluence battery). EnergyAustralia has also recently announced it will build new storage capacity in Victoria through a 350MW four-hour utility-scale battery project that will be completed by 2026.

How could manufacturers better support C&I solar installers?

There is no doubt the impact of covid over the past 18 months has been a significant challenge for many industries including renewables and energy efficiency. Stock forecasting, availability and more recently freight costs have been some of the harder items for manufacturers and installers to manage. Having said that, our industry is one of the most agile and fast-paced around, with new product releases occurring regularly and government rebates and regulations changing constantly. In this environment strong, trusted relationships are crucial.