The Clean Energy Regulator has promised to pursue civil or criminal proceedings against solar installers who fail its standards for accreditation.

The Clean Energy Regulator’s report on the rooftop solar industry is good news for reputable PV installers and a dark warning to all the cheaters out there. Wherever they may be, CER executive general manager Mark Williamson has this message for them: “We do have investigations on foot and I do expect criminal charges and civil charges to be laid in coming months.”

Williamson was speaking during a webinar that went over the content of the CER’s Integrity Review of the Rooftop Solar PV Sector. Prosecution, he said, will be stepped up against bad agents in the rooftop sector, which covers systems up to 100kW that are eligible for government subsidies via the Small-scale Technology Certificates available as part of the CER’s Small-scale Renewable Energy Scheme.

With take-up of residential PV soaring over the past five years, and 2021 sure to be a record, the CER also needs administrative powers to root out poor performers, including dodgy installers, retailers who overpromise on PV systems and manufacturers whose equipment does not do what customers were told it would do.

“Any party who procures, aids or abets a Commonwealth fraud can be charged with fraud offences … which can proceed down the criminal path and lead to jail sentences,” Williamson said.

Ghost on the roof

A common complaint heard by the CER as it conducted its review was of installers signing off on PV systems when they were not even on site.

Under the recommendations the CER will act as the single regulator, acting on enforcement and setting down scheme eligibility criteria. The administration of an installer accreditation program and approved equipment list – currently the work of the Clean Energy Council – “could still be done by other parties”, he said. “It’s only intended that we take over the hard-edged enforcement work.”

The Clean Energy Council does not have investigative powers.

A key recommendation of the report, however, is that the CER decide on the requirements for accreditation. There also remains the possibility for a second installer accreditation industry body to operate, which “ultimately will be put out to market”.

Training of solar installers around the country will be beefed up to underline the risk to graduates of cutting corners. “In our investigations we found everything from wilful fraud to absolute stupidity,” Williamson said.

“We found some Clean Energy Council-accredited installers who also run a retail business who have their own gangs of installers, that include CEC-accredited installers, where the owner of the company – an accredited installer – is signing off on a written statement for administrative convenience,” he said, where a statement is supposed to be proof that the signatory was on-site for the entire installation and carried out the work. “Well, I’m sorry but that’s fraud.”

These written statements are complex, Williamson admitted, but they will be streamlined within the solar panel validation app. In the near future, he suggested, the installer may be required to take a selfie at the start, middle and end of a job and the location will be validated against barcodes on the installed PV modules.

The hardest sell

For dicey retailers, the game is up. They are selling systems at such low rates that they know accredited installers will not be on site, he said, and they know the components used are not approved by the CEC. These practices must end.

“They will have to sign a simple written statement, and if they make false statements we will be able to declare they are ineligible to sell with the STC incentive in the future,” Williamson said.

The good retailers around Australia are sick of being undercut by crooks. All of those who are “making sure consumers get what they were promised” have nothing to worry about.

“My message to the [installers who are] crooks is: get out and find another industry or tidy up your act very quickly,” he said. “We will not hesitate to use our new powers.”

Manufacturers are also in the CER’s sights, following stories of batches of panels that underperform against “golden samples” that were tested earlier. They will also be required to make declarations to the CER that equipment will meet standards, where a false declaration “puts them at very serious risk”.

Knowing that it’s a very far cry to haul every devious installer, retailer or manufacturer off to a civil or criminal hearing, the CER will be granted augmented powers to “quickly exit” those who don’t follow the rules.

The CER has been given an extra $19 million in funding to implement the review’s recommendations. Consultation on the amendments will be conducted around mid-October to early November, with recommendations enacted in the first quarter of 2022, Williamson speculated.