Storage and customer support are the top priorities for Leigh Richardson, owner of Melbourne solar business Energise.
How did you get into solar?
I started an electrical business in 2009, doing small domestic work, and started residential solar installs in 2011. I was out of the industry for a while, interstate and abroad, and got back into it in 2018. We mainly do residential around the eastern suburbs of Melbourne and have also done a small amount of commercial and a few off-grids in regional Victoria.
What’s drawn your residential customers to solar?
It all depends. We’ve done subbie work where the clientele just want a system and don’t care too much about it, but the ones who have done their research want to reduce their bills. Revenue isn’t really a factor anymore, with the lower feed-in tariffs. Eleven or 12 years ago that was the big factor; people almost wanted to make money off solar. Now they want to get rid of the bill, get to net-zero and anything above that is a bonus.
What do you mean by net-zero?
Generate the same amount as your consumption. The customers who do their research and want to sit down and talk about their system, we go through their usage over the past two years, work out what they’re using and how they’re using it and figure out what sort of system they can install to combat that. Generally, it requires something bigger than 6.6kW. A lot of the time we’re installing 9kW, 10kW, up to 13kW – sometimes bigger. Often they’ll also fork out for a battery to really keep on top of their night-time usage. We aim for multi-day storage with the batteries, but price-wise that’s not always achievable.
Are they using enough electricity to justify systems that big?
Most of the customers fall below 25kWh a day but we get some who are upwards of 80kWh. Depending on your roofspace you’re not always going to be able to combat that. For most houses that are around the 15-25kWh mark, a 10kW system with a 13kWh battery is usually a pretty good ballpark. If you’re exporting at 6c/kWh and consuming at up to 35c/kWh, even if you are generating a little bit more than you’re consuming you’re still going to have quite a significant bill in winter. The best way to offset that is to bump up the system size to combat rainy weeks and winter months and store as much as you can.
It sounds as though you’ve done quite a bit of storage.
It’s where we’re trying to focus at the moment. Lithium batteries have come down quite significantly over the last couple of years, especially in Victoria where the state chips in more than $4,000. Batteries that used to cost about $13,000 to put in are now costing about $2,000. It’s definitely achievable at the moment and hopefully with incentives and price falls it will be more achievable in the future. I really do think that’s a focus point of PV installs for the future.
Do your customers understand how to use storage?
A lot of them rely on the battery management system. In the early days when we started installing storage we probably weren’t as transparent as we could have been with the customers as to how it works. As of last year we’ve started to explain it in detail and provide handbooks about how the algorithms work and how your consumption versus generation is going to affect the battery storage. A lot of the focus for us has been to try and have that transparency with customers and give them as much information as possible so they are aware how a battery operates.
A lot of people will install a big battery and a big system and think, OK, that’s it, I can forget about it now. Then all of a sudden they get a bill and think, hang on, what’s happening here. You do get those questions from customers, saying, I thought we’d taken care of our electricity usage with a system we’ve paid thousands of dollars for. The key in that respect is transparency and education for the consumer.
It’s pretty complex, for people who may not have thought much about electricity…
Definitely, and a lot of it happens before the installation process. You have to explain to the customer what they’re getting themselves into. Before they’ve spent their money you have to sit down with the customer and explain how it works, how it’s going to affect their usage and how to use it smartly – not just blindly operate everything because you’ve got a battery and solar and you think everything’s going to be accounted for.
Are you OK with the Australian battery standards?
It’s a little frustrating at times. I can understand the concerns regarding batteries, but I’m also a bit frustrated with some of the blanket rulings in some of the different types of batteries. For example, where you can’t have a battery within so much distance of an exit or a window, or behind a habitable room. There’s a lot that goes into fire protection of a combustible battery. I’m pretty sure in some of the newer technologies that’s such a minimal risk that the rules don’t need to be so stringent.
Are you happy with the level of technical support from manufacturers?
One of the inverter companies we use quite a lot has really good customer support, in contrast with some of the other companies. Once you start installing the best systems and inverters with UPS it starts getting integrated into how the house works. The more that happens, the more the customer needs to have that technical support available. That’s going to become really important.
As far as installers go, we need to have technical support on the spot. Some companies can be exceedingly frustrating when you’re trying to work out some small kinks during an installation.
That must affect what gear you recommend for the next job.
If I’ve got customers saying we’ve got this issue and tried to talk it out with the manufacturer and haven’t got any feedback, that makes any installer look bad and it makes you steer away from using that company. Your reputation takes a battering and it takes time out of your day, going back and forth over something that should be easily resolved.
Is there anything you would like to see changed in the solar industry?
On storage, there needs to be more of a focus on whether it be neighbourhood-scale storage or house-by-house. We need to try and store a lot of this solar energy rather than force-feeding it back into an ill-designed infrastructure. It would be great to see that area focused on and improved, to put storage within reach of the everyday consumer rather than the small amount who can afford it.
You think high solar exports are a problem?
We’re seeing it now, with inverters that have to be controlled under the new regulations. Rather than expensive infrastructure upgrades, now the consumer pays the price by having export limits. We’re limited sometimes to zero export, and I believe that’s massively unfair to the consumer. It makes it a very hard investment to sell and points towards the viability of batteries again. Instead of exporting it, hold onto it and use it when you’re not going to have sun for a few days in a row.
You see new estates going up where everybody has solar and there’s one large community battery, which I think is a great way to move forward. It combats infrastructure issues; if you’re not going to feed it back into the infrastructure then it’s not going to be an issue.