We hear you are one of the respected elders of solar, Mick. What’s your story?
I set up EnviroGroup 15 years ago but I’d had a background in renewable energy well before that. I installed my first off-grid system in 1980. That first system was two 12W panels and a small battery in a 12V DC system in Walhalla, one of the last towns in Victoria to go on the grid.
I’ve been a solar installer for 40 years-plus but I’m not an electrician, so I’m doing an electrical apprenticeship now. I’m a very mature-aged apprentice, at 62. It’s good fun with the 18-year-olds. Doing the apprenticeship is the most enjoyable part of my week.
So much has changed in 40 years in solar, how have you kept up?
The changes have been dramatic. The costs have come down more than anyone thought could ever have been possible. For a long time the cost of PV was around $10 a watt, so the equivalent of a 300W panel would be $3,000. Now it’s less than $1 a watt. We’ve seen more than a 90% reduction in costs and the size of the systems has grown incredibly, and they are much more sophisticated. Grid-connect is massive. There have been very dramatic changes.
Were there times when you thought today’s level of adoption of solar would be impossible?
I was at an industry conference about eight years ago where they said market penetration is going to go up to this level and prices will come down to this level … and we didn’t believe it. People in the industry did not believe what was being projected. But what was projected has turned out to be conservative. It’s been quite incredible.
Are owners of residential systems surprised by benefits they didn’t expect from investing in solar?
When grid-connected solar started to take off in a big way I think many people who thought it would be a good idea didn’t realise how much money they would save with it. The savings have exceeded the expectations of many people in the Australian community, which is one reason domestic solar has been so strong.
What do you think when you come across one of the very old systems?
The old stuff is really pretty rough compared to current work. The standards weren’t very high in the early days of the industry. Old off-grid systems were a bunch of batteries and a whole lot of wires all over the place. They were electrically risky … they were very rough. Now they are much neater, a beautiful thing.
What sort of systems are you installing today and are you impressed by installers’ work?
We’re doing grid-connect, hybrid, battery, off-grid, commercial – the full range. The standards are lifting all the time. In Victoria we have a very aggressive inspection regime that’s been instituted by the state government, because the government doesn’t want to see a pink Batts-style problem [where high government subsidies can encourage unscrupulous tactics]. The severe inspection regime has increased standards quite a lot. Even though the inspections are a pain they are increasing the standards of the workmanship and the OH&S standards as well.
What makes you say they are a pain?
The inspectors sometimes pull us up on things we think are minor technicalities, that have no impact on system quality or the OH&S risks associated with the jobs. The people inspecting the systems need to have a set of standards they subscribe to themselves. It’s important you don’t have inspectors who have different interpretations of the regulations. Some of the inspectors have particular interpretations of standards, which might be different from the CEC and also from Australian Standards. There is a problem.
Are you installing much storage?
Storage is a bit like PV was 10 years ago. Back then, PV wasn’t something you necessarily did because it saved you money; you did it because you believed in it and you were enthusiastic about the idea. Storage, however, is still a significant cost. It makes sense if you are in a location where there is unreliable power and you need to have emergency power available, and it makes sense in off-grid situations. It is still marginal whether it is worth doing from a financial perspective where you are grid-connected with a reliable power supply.
But many people still want to do it. There is a massive amount of bottled-up demand for storage in straight grid-connected applications. Many people love the idea of reducing their dependence on their power provider, because power providers have a very bad reputation.
Do customers understand storage? Are they nerdy about it or do they just leave it to do its own thing?
You get a few who are right into the technical side of it, a small percentage. The other 90% who buy storage just think it’s a good idea and are quite happy with a simple app that allows them to see what’s going on.
Will the retailers and market operators push back against solar?
We’re seeing a little bit of that now, because it’s difficult for the grid to cope with solar at the moment; there is the issue of voltage rise, for one. But these are problems to be solved, and they can be solved. Things like export limiting on inverters, distributors limiting the size of systems that are going in, battery storage, more intelligent systems – all of those things can solve those types of problems.
Have things settled in Victoria since the solar homes rebates program was increased?
The jobs are flowing through quite quickly now. The cash flow hit that disruption of the rebates created has passed. The mature solar businesses that are diversified in their income streams were not hit as hard as some of the businesses that really relied on cheap domestic installs. If you put all your eggs in one basket by just doing cheap domestic installs then inevitably you are at risk – there are always ups and downs in this industry. You’ve got to be more mature than that in your business approach and have more diversification. It’s like any business.
Would the solar business be better off without subsidies?
Some of us in the industry think we’d be better off without them, that it would be more stable. One of the problems with subsidies is it brings in the sharks, who just want to get in and make some quick money. They bring down the standards, which brings down the margins, which makes it more difficult for the good players to deliver quality. In the industry we kind of like subsidies but at the same time they are a two-sided sword. It’s a tricky one.