Victoria government closes Solar Homes rebate to "approved" retailers only

Solar retailers in Victoria have woken up to the news on Friday that they must be signatories to the Clean Energy Council’s Solar Retailer Code of Conduct to be able to participate in the state government’s Solar Homes rebate.
The new rule, effective from July, was announced by the Labor Andrews government on Friday, as part of efforts to tighten quality control of the subsidy scheme, which expects to deliver rooftop solar for another 700,000 homes in the state, at a discount of up to $2,225.
To this end, a separate body – Solar Victoria – has already been set up to administer the scheme, and has established a taskforce to monitor the rollout and, with the help of Consumer Affairs Victoria, combat high-pressure sales tactics, inaccurate marketing and poor service.
Other regulators have also been engaged, including WorkSafe, Energy Safe and the Victorian Building Authority, to monitor safety and the enforcement of “long standing OHS and electrical safety requirements.”
Solar Victoria is also conducting regular auditing of installed systems to further ensure safety and quality standards are being met, with 5 per cent of all installations to be randomly audited.
State energy minister Lily D’Ambrosio said on Friday that the additional requirement that businesses participating in the scheme be CEC Approved Solar Retailers would protect consumers from dodgy providers, and establish a more level playing field for industry.
The CEC’s Solar Retailer Code of Conduct is a voluntary, ACCC-authorised scheme for solar retail businesses that, as the website puts it, “aims to lift the bar higher than the minimum requirements set by government and regulations” and raise the standard of service within the solar industry.
Companies that apply are assessed through review of their documentation, internal processes, interviews and reviewed by a panel including consumer affairs and industry representatives, and also pay a small fee for the accreditation.
Currently, there are around 96 retailers operating in Victoria – and around 260 Australia-wide – that are already accredited with the CEC. D’Ambrosio said unaccredited retailers that wished to apply to the Code of Conduct would have until November 01 to do so.
Failing to do so by that deadline, however, would exclude them from participating in the 10-year rooftop solar rebate.
“We’re making sure that safety and quality is the number one consideration for providers delivering our Solar Homes package,” said D’Ambrosio.
“This Code of Conduct will make it easier for households to know what they’re entitled to and easier for retailers to do the right thing.”
The news was welcomed by some in the industry, with one retailer describing the ruling on Facebook as “a game changer for consumers.
“It means that there are only a VERY limited number of providers that can supply your system if you wish to claim the rebate.”
But not everyone in the industry is convinced this is the right path to take, particularly considering the CEC accreditation was established as a voluntary measure for solar retailers, and is rapidly being hammered into a mandatory requirement via state government policies.
As Solar Choice’s Finn Peacock wrote here a little over a week ago, making the Approved Solar Retailer status mandatory under the Victorian rebate will make it “effectively impossible” to compete in that state without it.
“No consumer is going to choose a company that can’t offer an extra $2,225 of free government money!” he said.
“(And)… the rest of the country is likely to go the same way as other states (or a Labor federal government) introduce more voter-friendly solar rebates, all potentially only available to ASRs.
“If this comes to pass, excellent companies that have done nothing wrong will be forced to either join the ASR or stop selling solar power systems. That’s not good. How can the CEC think this is OK?”
Peacock – who concedes that he used to consider the CEC’s Approved Solar Retailer scheme to be “excellent” – is also concerned that the influx of companies seeking ASR status under the new rules might compromise the scheme’s previously high standards.
He cites the example of South Australia, which implemented the same rule as Victoria for its home battery subsidy program.
“ASR applications went through the roof. The CEC was under immense pressure to approve more Approved Retailers than ever. In the rush I fear that their previously very tight vetting process suffered,” he wrote.
“There are now around 250 Approved Solar Retailers. Unfortunately, among those are a handful that I would not recommend to anyone.”
But RenewEconomy and One Step Off The Grid regular contributor, and Solar Insiders co-host, Nigel Morris argues that while the CEC’s Code of Conduct is not perfect, it is an important industry standard – and a great deal better than nothing at all.
“(It’s) the only scheme in Australia (and one of the very few in the world) that has been developed specifically to create additional solar consumer protection measures and targets retail behaviour and practices in addition to installation behaviour and practices,” Morris wrote here in November last year.
“It also conducts checks to ensure that Directors are not subject to bankruptcy claims or phoenixing, among other things. Application costs a couple of hundred dollars and there is a capped sliding scale depending on size once approved.
“An average small solar company could expect to pay between $600-$800 for being a signatory and has to demonstrate ongoing compliance (you get annual audits).”
The CEC also watches its signatories – and those claiming to be signatories, but are not (see FB post below) – very carefully and has demonstrated that a failure to comply will result in being removed.

Morris also noted that the accreditation process rejects around 50 per cent of applications, demonstrating that the bar is high enough to not make it too easy. “You have to be a bit serious about compliance and processes or you just wont get through,” he said.
D’Ambrosio said any breaches of the terms of the Solar Retailer’s Code of Conduct would be reviewed by the CEC, with sanctions for breaching the code ranging from warnings to loss of CEC approval and referral to other agencies including Consumer Affairs Victoria, WorkSafe and Energy Safe Victoria.
Read Clean Energy CEO Kane Thornton’s piece here on how the Approved Solar Retailer program came about, and why it should only be of concern to those businesses in the industry not interested in delivering quality to customers.

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