Handbrake on solar business

As the crisis in the Victorian solar industry deepens, the Smart Energy Council continues to meet with the Victorian Government to urge major changes to the Victorian Solar Homes Program. The damage wreaked by the program was made clear at last week’s rally held outside the Premier’s office where more than 200 solar installers voiced their fears and frustrations over the program that is resulting in business closures.

“This is not the sort of outcome you would expect from a system designed to encourage the take up of solar PV and help the state transition to a low carbon economy,” John Grimes of the Smart Energy Council said. “We should be supporting, not destroying, the solar sector.”

Speaking in front of the crowd he called on the Premier to take immediate and decisive action to fix the problem. As many as 1000 jobs could be lost from Victoria’s solar industry as a direct consequence of the Solar Homes Program.

“These are the clean, green collar jobs lost as a result of the 40 per cent decline in business which is forcing business owners into bankruptcy.

“The losers are the companies, workers, the environment. The entire supply chain is affected,” he said.

The Victorian government was spending $100 million on solar incentives, he told the assembly.

“And the result of that spend? Solar businesses going months and months without revenue, or greatly reduced revenue. All that money to put businesses out of work and into personal bankruptcy – that is the experience of this program.”

Enough is enough.

“This action is just the beginning … we are not going away. The campaign ramps up from here, with 1 September looming,” John Grimes said.

“There are solutions … double the number of available rebates from 3333 to 6666 each month and halve the $2225 rebate.”

Shadow Renewables and Energy Minister Ryan Smith fronted the rally to encourage installers to keep up the pressure.

“I’ve talked to many about the impact – the grief, depression and guilt (laying off staff). People are doing it tough and looking to close the doors – that is not what this scheme should be about.

“This industry has lost confidence in the Energy Minister.

“But we will prosecute your case when we get back to parliament,” he said. “We will try and move an inquiry in the Upper House on how this program and the application process was put together, and who is getting the jobs.

“The reason we are trying to get a parliamentary inquiry up is to enable solar installers to tell their stories in public hearings so the personal impact is well known,” he told Smart Energy.

“There are lots of questions to which we need answers.

“The more pressure put on government the better, and the more solar installers who can tell their personal stories – through media outlets, TV, press, radio, papers – the better,” he said. “It is these personal stories that will ultimately put pressure on the government.”

Despite the Victorian Opposition’s attempts, the push for a parliamentary inquiry was, unfortunately, unsuccessful with the Government and some crossbenchers voting against it.

The scheme’s failures were addressed at the rally by Tim Read, Greens member for Brunswick who said the broader community cared about solar energy because it is the main action being taken to tackle climate change.

“It beggars belief you can throw so much money at an industry yet to do much damage – it does not make sense. This is the government flagship program to tackle climate change, it is too important to fail.

“They cannot afford to let it collapse or do more damage … when you spend money on renewable energy you should get more of it, not less.

“It’s OK to say you made a mistake – you need to say it and you need to fix it.

Emotions again ran high at the rally where more powerful messages were delivered.

Ryan Ackers of Solar Cutters said all Government had done is put a handbrake on business and rather than create jobs, they had caused job losses.

“We need to fix this now, today,” he said.

Mark Condon of Solar Power Melbourne reported a glimmer of hope was delivered when he spoke to Premier Daniel Andrews during a radio talkback program.

“He said he was open to the idea of increasing the rebates – but we are yet to receive details.

“We all want it fixed and we are getting traction now – people in power are taking notice, but we need to keep up the fight.

“Things are tough. I just want my business back; I want to get back to work.

John Kurta of Kuga Electrical echoed the messages, saying “Premier Andrews it won’t take much to fix this. Give us what you promised and increase the cap on numbers that is simply too small and inadequate.

“Let us get on with the job of letting solar cut the cost of electricity prices.”

Meanwhile, Solar Victoria which had been investigating claims that some operators had used artificial intelligence to “scoop up more than their fair share of the monthly solar rebate allocations” found no evidence of artificial intelligence, bots or any other automation.

“The investigation was of a statistically significant sample of transactions and, with high confidence, Solar Victoria can rule out automated interaction with the portal which was designed to prevent such attempts,” the message on the website read.

A warning has been issued that retailers suspected of not transacting in the spirit of the scheme will be investigated and penalised or possibly excluded from participating in the program if found to be involved in misconduct.

Solar Victoria is modifying the system to enable retailers to upload draft quotes at any time in the month, regardless of whether the rebate allocation has been exhausted or not.