Consumer group calls on Victoria to ban rooftop solar cold-calling

The consumer group behind a major push to tighten the rules around buy now pay later finance for rooftop solar, as well as solar cold-calling, has turned its focus to state governments, after failed efforts to amend the New Energy Tech Consumer Code through regulatory bodies.

The Consumer Action Law Centre last year threw its weight behind an Australia Competition and Consumer Commission bid to amend to the Code – a distributed energy rulebook setting minimum voluntary standards of good practice and consumer protection – forbidding the use of BNPL products for unsolicited sales of rooftop solar installations.

But as One Step Off The Grid reported here, this effort – which included a push for installers to ensure BNPL providers conducted responsible lending checks on customers – was met with a fight from the BNPL sector, which took the matter to the Australian Competition Tribunal and won in September 2020.

In a kind of post-mortem of that battle, published this week, the Consumer Action Law Centre has described the Tribunal’s decision as “disappointing and a missed opportunity” and says it is now up to governments to step in and change laws to better protect solar consumers.

As a starting point, the group is calling on the Victorian government to take action in that state, as an extension of its existing commitment to ban unsolicited sales of traditional energy under the Energy Fairness Plan.

“Bodies such as the Tribunal need to adopt a broader understanding of ‘public benefit’ that considers the impact decisions will have on consumers experiencing vulnerability, not just those people who have time to engage in the market or can afford to wear the cost when things go wrong,” said Consumer Action CEO Gerard Brody.

“The Australian Competition Tribunal matter also highlights the problem with industry setting its own rules through codes of conduct and self-regulation which leave households exposed to potential harm,” he said.

“It’s now in the hands of government to reform the law to fill the holes in consumer protections… We are calling on the Victorian government to extend its remit and ban unsolicited sales of solar products, improve practices and ensure confidence in this booming industry.”

Victoria is as good a place as any to focus this campaign, with the state government already putting in place a number of checks and balances as part of its Solar Homes rebate scheme, which offers heavily discounted rooftop PV and solar battery systems to eligible households.

Just to access the Victorian scheme, for example, households have to engage a Clean Energy Council accredited installer. And while gaining CEC accreditation is not necessarily a high bar, keeping it is not guaranteed. In late 2019, for example, a retailer was scratched from the list of businesses allowed to access the rebate after being caught using unlicensed electrical workers.

Meanwhile, there are other checks and balances. Last month, a Victorian solar company was found guilty in the Federal Court of breaching consumer protection laws on numerous occasions, including through the use of dodgy door-to-door sales tactics and false claims of endorsement from the Clean Energy Council.

And in Queensland, a solar retailer was fined just over $50,000 dollars in July of last year for the use of non-compliant and “aggressive” phone sales tactics, including making tens of thousands of unsolicited calls to numbers listed on the Do Not Call Register.

That case was fought by the federal government’s Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) as part of a crackdown on telemarketing breaches by the solar industry. According to ACMA, breaches of Australia’s telemarketing laws can result in formal warnings, infringement notices, action in the Federal Court and court-enforceable undertakings. Repeat corporate offenders can face penalties of up to $2.22 million a day.

But at the time, ACMA also noted that its recent figures showed complaints about unwanted solar marketing calls had halved since 2018, after a range of ACMA compliance and enforcement actions involving the sector.

The Clean Energy Regulator is also doing its bit to protect consumers from “crap solar” practices and products. The CER last year began working with solar industry stakeholders to develop a new serial number ledger designed to further safeguard the federal government’s Small-scale Renewable Energy Scheme while also making it easier for users to assess their eligibility.

The new ledger was announced by the CER in the last weeks of 2020, as a mechanism to store all solar panel serial numbers supplied to the Australian market and eligible for the small-scale technology certificates, or STCs, issued under the SRES.

And just last week, the CER said it was ramping up a major task force to target installers who provided false information about solar PV installations to registered agents who then created STCs.

On buy-now, pay-later, however, the Consumer Action Law Centre could be fighting a losing battle. As the Tribunal said last year in its determination, “unregulated consumer credit in the form of ‘buy now pay later’ finance is a significant and popular form of finance used by consumers to acquire New Energy Technology products.

“Most of the proposed restrictions on the supply of ‘buy now pay later’ finance in the proposed code will generate substantial public detriments by reducing the availability of such finance to consumers, thereby reducing consumer access to NET products.”

Even one of the key proponents of the push to tighten rules around BNPL has given in to demand. As One Step reported earlier this month, small loan provider Plenti has flagged it will start offering buy-now pay-later finance for the installation of rooftop solar and residential battery storage after deciding to join rather than fight the expansion of the credit services in the solar industry.

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