The slashing of solar electric subsidies has left the industry in turmoil – while consumers are still vulnerable to rogue traders
The UK solar electric industry says it is in turmoil. The government slashed its subsidies in the middle of a consultation period, and then, this week, Friends of the Earth showed in the high court that the government had acted illegally. Many companies, who thought Christmas had come early, now say they are confused, uncertain of the future and don’t know what to advise consumers.
Join the club. The public has been confused and uncertain about solar energy for months now. The industry has some fine, legitimate businesses, which have vast experience in installing and maintaining solar PV systems; but ever since word got out that there was free money to be had, it’s gone mad, with cowboys, incompetents, rogue dealers, dodgy workers, ruthless salesmen and hosts of under-employed, have-a-go builders, many of whom graduated in the double-glazing industry, piling in.
They have left a trail of faulty installations and unfinished work and householders believing they will benefit from massive amounts of cheap or free electricity over the next 20 years – when they almost certainly will not.
The first problem is that rogue companies have been over-enthusiastic about the kind of returns people can expect, both from their panels and then from the government scheme. Some people have reportedly paid £18,000 for 1Kw systems in the belief they are getting a mini-Sellafield power station on their roof, when in fact they will be lucky to be able to boil a kettle most days.
Others have been persuaded to “rent” their roofs out to companies for 20 years in return for “free electricity” with little idea of what this means if they sell or want to change.
Then there’s the problem of installers. Solar companies need qualified electricians but most of these have never been on a roof. One couple I know of had to have 400 tiles replaced after the installers trampled over it. They were lucky that the company rectified the damage quickly.
In addition, they need plumbers, who mostly have little experience of electrics, and scaffolders, who have massively upped the price of renting kit.
There’s room for trouble everywhere. Companies must, in theory, be accredited under the Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS) and also be members of an approved consumer code scheme. But cowboy installers have found ways round this, getting “freelance” electricians to do the final hook-up to the grid and therefore technically making it safe and eligible for the subsidy, but actually having no responsibility for anything else.
Then there’s the money. There has been a glut of panels and factory prices have plummeted, but many companies are over-charging, asking for upfront deposits and offering minimal “cooling off” periods.
So what to do?
• Only approach companies that are members of the REAL Assurance Scheme.
• Only sign a contract with a company that is certified under the Microgeneration Certification Scheme for the technology you are looking to install.
• Check the Energy Saving Trust website for objective information and target prices. Their online “cashback calculator” will tell you how much solar panels could earn on your roof.
• Read guidance carefully before you sign a contract or pay a deposit.
• Get at least three quotes, make sure any testimonials you rely on are genuine and were not paid for and contact the people yourself and ask them any questions.
• Before you sign a contract or pay a deposit, make sure the company gives you a quote in writing, including a standard performance estimate specific to your property.