Which? Magazine, organ of the Consmers’ Association condemn in-your-home solar PV sellers in new report: 24 June 2011.
Solar PV companies use dodgy sales tactics and give poor advice to consumers wanting to buy solar PV (photovoltaic) panels, says Which? Magazine in a new hard-hitting article.
In an undercover sting operation, Which? found
- three quarters of solar PV companies overestimated how much energy the solar PV panels would produce while
- most of them underestimated how long it would take for the system to pay for itself.
One solar PV company
- overestimated the buyer’s profit by £4,275 over 25 years and
- underestimated the payback time by three years, compared to their expert’s calculations.
Which? also found that the Government’s crude rules, using a building regulations energy calculation tool called Standard Assessment of Performance (SAP) to work out energy output donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t take into account key factors like where people live.
Seven out of the 12 salespeople visiting the Which? undercover house even recommended installing solar PV panels on a shaded part of the roof. Eight companies didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t question customers about how much energy they used. We don’t do this either, because it makes very little difference. But we will if we have to if we are told to. We are really not sure how much this point matters, since the financial difference between people who actually export 25% of their energy and those who “export” 50% of their PV energy instead is actually well under 5%.) Try the EST calculator yourself.
Some customers are also getting the hard sell. Although the REAL consumer code bans pressure selling which includes offering large discounts for a quick sale, one firm, Green Sun, gave the customer 24 hours to make a decision, and Skyline offered a Ã¢â‚¬Ëœfirst come first servedÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ discount in exchange for monitoring data, both practice which are banned under the REAL code.
Richard Lloyd, Which? executive director, says:
Which? is talking to the Government and the industry’s trade bodies about our findings to improve the service consumers get from solar companies.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“It seems extraordinary that the Government’s rules require companies to ignore whether you live in Cornwall or Scotland when working out how long itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll take to pay for the solar panels. It’s obvious that the more sun you get, the faster the payback. The Government has to put this right.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“It really isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t difficult – companies just need to make sure they send people who are qualified to ask the right questions, do the right checks and give customers better advice.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Solartwin’s response is to welcome much of the report but ask why Which?, having already failed to do so in its solar thermal study, again failed to point out that unsupervised selling appeared to be the cause of the mis-selling problem.
Barry Johnston, Managing Director of Solar Twin Ltd, commented on this omission and on other issues today, saying:
Not only do we recruit only talented graduates of subjects such as geography for our retail sales team, but they also work together in a supervised team. Which? now need to validate the benefits of remote surveying and selling of solar panels in a supervised team by phone questionnaire and aerial photography, as we pioneered and have delivered successfully for the last twelve years.
Our “eco-survey” approach, conducted for over 95% of all our domestic quotes for solar panels, whether PV or solar thermal, not only saves costs: it also saves the planet. Our innovative green selling approach may not “close as many deals” as some competitors, with a more double glazing mentality, but certainly it cuts huge amounts of CO2 emissions associated with driving to deliver unsupervised onsite quoting for what is, after all, an environmental technology. Per solar order the amount of extra CO2 emissions associated with quoting by car for solar is in the range of 100-200 kg of avoidable CO2 pollution, which can delay your solar installation from reaching carbon breakeven by several months.
“Another omission by Which was any social context of the Feed In Tariff. While, as nationwide PV solar installers, we are obviously beneficiaries of it, are aware that while these subsidies bring power to the people and can be regarded as a great example of decentralisation in action, we are aware that some green critics call the Feed in Tariff a “Reverse Robin Hood.”
It might be better to raise VAT on dirty (carbon and nuclear) domestic fuels to 20%, and then to immediately redeploy at least 50% of the extra income raised for social measures or to reduce standing charges so that there are much steeper incentives to use less fuel in the first place. This would reduce the need for so many subsidies and reduce the risk of government to picking winners, in terms of huge subsidy levels, something they are really not very good at, at all. This would be a fun job for Ofgem!
As for the vastly incorrect calculations on profit and payback, we use our own in-house, and fairly conservative calculation methodology because we prefer realism to exaggeration. Our calculations are slightly pessimistic, compared to the Energy Saving Trust’s calculator which was used by Which?. We also make a clear distinction between return on investment, which includes paying back the original sum, which for PV delivers a figure in the range of 4-6% and return on capital, which is more like 8-10% a year, because it ignores paying back the capital cost if a PV installation.
We agree with Which?’s call for the Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS) and the REAL code to be improved and enforced to work better for consumers. We have actually produced a video about what we think consumers might need. In fact some of the players on the solar thermal MCS committe (and the BSI Solar Thermal Chairman) need to learn more a bit about cricket. The Ironically named, because it is industry-dominated, Real “Consumer” Code has failed dismally to protect consumers from scores of REAL members companies’ false solar thermal claims such as free hot water and virtually zero carbon solar.
Revising MCS rules on energy performance prediction should improve the quality of solar PV installations wile the same is needed for solar thermal where gross energy under the RHI is a fraud on the nation. To ensure consumers get sufficient information to make informed decisions about installing microgeneration technologies MCS needs to publish comparative tables of the years to reach energy breakeven for each technology such as:
- Solartwin solar water heating: 2 years according to Bath University research.
- Old mains pumped solar thermal: 4 years, according to Bath and DTI and EST data.
- PV installations: 5 years according to Bath University
- Heat pumps X years, and so on, for each technology.
The renewables / microgeneration lobby will not come to the environmental transparency table in a hurry. There are too many skeletons in the cupboard. This lobby is being generously funded by too many electricity interests and too many clunky technologies, some of which offer minmal sustainabilty benefits in most homes. Clearly outside pressure is needed. I wish Which? were keener on looking at the details on the environmental performance of microgeneration, because this is where the the basis of better energy policy is to be found.
Here is a paste-in of notes to Editors from Which?
Posing as customers, Which? asked 12 certified companies to survey a house in southern England and quote for installing a solar PV system. The electricity generated would be used in the house and any extra would go into the national grid. We filmed all visits and recorded all phone calls, then gave the findings to a solar expert. We used a solar expert to assess the advice provided and calculate the power output and asked a senior trading standards officer, Neil McLoughlin, to examine the sales tactics Solar PV (photovoltaic) panels generate electricity from the sun’s energy that can be used to run household appliances and lighting. You can use PV systems for a building with a roof or wall that faces within 90 degrees of south, as long as no other buildings or large trees overshadow it. Less energy will be generated if the roof surface is in shadow for parts of the day, but it will still generate some electricity.
The government’s clean energy cashback scheme, also known as the Ã¢â‚¬Ëœfeed-in tariffÃ¢â‚¬â„¢, pays homeowners for generating electricity from electricity generating microgeneration technologies, including solar photovoltaic (PV) panels.
On Wednesday 22 June, the Government launched its Microgeneration Strategy. Which? wants quality advice and installation to be at the heart of this new strategy.
Which? wants the Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS) and the REAL code to be improved and enforced to work better for consumers. Revising the rules should improve the quality of solar PV installations and ensure that consumers are provided with sufficient information to make informed decisions about installing microgeneration technologies.
Which? wants MCS and REAL to better monitor and enforce rules, remove rogue traders from the MCS scheme and publish results of enforcement action on an annual basis.
Which? says that installation quotes must:
- prohibit quotes being given on the basis of sales visits alone
- include a site specific estimate
- include clear information on the life expectancy of equipment and cost of replacements, and full cost (including scaffolding) of installation
Here is the Which? video.
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