Victoria “in denial” over solar mess, as Parliament votes down rebate inquiry

Victoria’s state Labor government has narrowly avoided a parliamentary inquiry into its controversial rooftop solar rebate, after the state opposition’s bid to establish one was voted down on Wednesday.

Liberal MP Gordon Rich-Phillips moved for the Environment and Planning Committee to investigate the design and implementation of the Andrews government’s Solar Homes Program, with a particular focus on the pre-determined cap for the rooftop PV rebate.

But votes on the inquiry were divided down the middle in the Upper House – 19 ayes, including MPs from the Greens and the Liberal Democrats; and 19 noes, including three cross-bench MPs – and so the question was “negatived.”

The push for an inquiry had been promised to the solar industry by Opposition leader Michael O’Brien, at a public protest against the 2.6GW scheme on the steps of state parliament in late July.

That demonstration – and a second rally outside the Premier’s office last week – saw hundreds of industry members gather to protest a scheme they say has brought non-rebate installations to a halt in the state, forcing job cuts and driving some businesses into liquidation.

The Smart Energy Council, which organised the protests, has called for urgent changes to the scheme, including tightening the eligibility criteria to qualify for the rebate, and a doubling in the amount of rebates offered up to applications each month.

The Andrews government has, however, held firm on the design of the scheme – which offers 3,333 per month of the rooftop solar rebates of $2,225 to households with an annual income no higher than $180,000.

State energy minister Lily D’Ambrosio has argued that the scheme has succeeded in its key goal, of providing rooftop solar to households which otherwise could not afford it, and that solar installers and retailers need to adapt their businesses to work around the rebate.

This is not the experience of many in the industry, however, who say the scheme is poorly designed and overly complex, and rather than boosting installations, has effectively put a cap on the market – and at a size nearly half that of the pre-rebate market.

In comments to One Step on Friday, SEC chief executive John Grimes expressed his disappointment that Parliament had voted down the inquiry, but stressed that industry was “more determined than ever” to fight for changes to Solar Homes.

“Solar workers, solar businesses and solar customers deserve to be heard and, boy, do they have a story to tell,” he said.

“It’s heartbreaking – solar businesses shutting down, people losing their jobs and apprentices being laid off, not to mention solar families facing the loss of their warranties because their installer has gone belly-up.

“This mess must be fixed before 1 September, or Father’s Day will be a day of heartbreak for many Victorian solar workers.”

Victoria’s shadow minister for energy, Ryan Smith said the vote was a “missed opportunity” to “finally shed some light” on the “botched” Solar Homes scheme.

“With …D’Ambrosio in complete denial about the growing range of problems her Solar Homes program has created for the industry, a Parliamentary inquiry would have allowed business owners and those working in the solar industry to tell their stories and demonstrate to the government why an urgent review of the policy is needed,” Smith said.

“With the protection of three crossbench MPs, the Andrews Labor government will now continue to engage in a cover-up of a failed policy to save face at the expense of real jobs and real businesses.”

The Clean Energy Council has also stepped up its call for action from the Andrews government, saying on Friday that the time for talk was over and that changes to the scheme were now critical.

“We cannot wait any longer while the solar industry suffers,” CEC chief Kane Thornton said.

“It is hard to understand why the government is ignoring hard-working Victorian businesses, many of which are likely to go under if changes to this program are not made urgently.

“Our staff are taking dozens of phone calls up to an hour long from installers and businesses who are doing it tough. Some have only managed to get one or two installation jobs for the entire month, others haven’t been able to get any at all.

“These are the people this program was supposed to be helping – and still can if the settings are changed.

“Our industry is calling for a review of this program to be conducted as soon as possible and wrapped up quickly. It is time to remove the cap on the Victorian solar industry and let installers get back to business.

“We have previously recommended reducing the income threshold and cutting the level of the rebate to allow for more installations each month. The current situation is unsustainable and is headed towards disaster,” Thornton said.

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