They’re all sharks mate

Lest I be accused of only using this blog to slag things off, I want to draw attention to something I like.  There’s a good article up on Business Spectator today by Damien Moyse from the Alternative Technology Association.  It’s called “Solar customers need a better deal” and nobody with an eye on what’s really been going on can take genuine issue with such a title.

This article and the report it links to discuss feed-in tariffs, peak and off-peak electricity rates, how these change when people install a system, and how much feeding in an undersized household system is actually going to do (not a lot).  These sorts of things are the nuts and bolts behind  homeowners installing pissweak 1kW systems and then ending up with bigger electricity bills at the end of it.

The lack of transparency in Aussie solar goes beyond the issues of electricity pricing this report delves into.  Customers seeking advice on how to best go solar will generally be offered the truism that they should opt for decent components, but they’ve got quite a job ahead of them trying to navigate this.  A lot of companies out there are very secret squirrel about what they’re actually using.  Some are shameless to the point of (allegedly) misrepresenting the equipment’s country of origin.  Less blatantly, many purveyors of equipment are well tuned into the fact that people associate Germany with engineering brilliance and the highest standards of workmanship, so they go to all sorts of lengths to drape themselves in a superficial Germanness.  When you walk around a clean energy trade show you see these stands built by Chinese owned companies staffed by Chinese dudes in suits and Chinese chicks in short dresses and stripper heels, and signage covered conspicuously in words containing umlauts and ending with the suffix “-heit”.  Because I’m a prick I went up to one of these guys and tried out some of my VCE German, to which he responded with polite incomprehension.  I wanted to hang around and teach him some teutonic obscenity but my business partner noted that I was “being a wanker” and “wasting time like a fucking dickhead” so the encounter was sadly cut short.  There’s also this phenomenon called “rebadging”, which is often just a way of branding a white label product, but it can also be where the purveyor of a crappy inverter will note that the good denizens of the whirlpool forums or elsewhere are telling people that said inverters are fond of breaking, so they will get the same gear accredited under a different name to keep customers in the dark.  As near as I can tell, this is perfectly lawful, but it stinks.

El Solar Duderino’s dear mother has worked as a social researcher in health policy for the past quarter century or so, with no end of academic research on the topic undertaken earlier in her life.  Through this work and academic background, a big part of her social milieu consists of comfortable well-off inner urban baby boomers with strongly left-leaning sympanthies and way too many degrees in the humanities from sandstone universities.  These are highly articulate, highly literate people with exceptionally well honed critical thinking skills, who are utterly unafraid of engaging with difficult or very abstracted concepts or issues.  If you mention some sort of topical news story, historical event, or social issue, they will approach it with no fear or appreahension and readily pick it apart, often with a very keen insight to what is actually at the crux of the matter and what is mere babble or smokescreen.  Around such folk, I’m happy to talk about what’s in the news with them, but I do so in the full knowledge that at some point they’re going to start referring to some thinker from the 19th century or something and I’m going to find myself well out of my depth and well beyond my attention span.  When faced with any sort of technology issue, however, they tend to start falling apart and their formidable capacities to reason or criticise suddenly don’t seem to be available to them.  Like all of us, they feel a lot more confident dealing with some things than others.  They are the kind of people who have dedicated their adult lives to all sorts of mindmeltingy difficult, lengthy and rigorous research and then think you’re a wizard because you know how to pirate Game Of Thrones from the internet.

Now I’m not just dropping this information here to deflect potential criticism that my mum might be a loser with no friends – there’s an actual point I’m getting to: a couple of these guys and gals have gone solar.  They’re far too nice to recount their experiences as I will but they’ve been taken for a ride.  Their installer has noted their technological helplessness, their sympathies for Mother Earth, and the depth of their pockets, and has exploited the situation mercilessly.  These customers have explained to me they’re happy with their investment because it will pay for itself over fifteen years or so.  Just to be a prick (again), I’ll mention that we recently did a system that will pay for itself in less than four.  Then I’ll note that we used the best electrician we know for it, and hooked him up with decent equipment for the job as well, and it was all done within a week.  Oh, and we didn’t cut our own throats to do this deal either.  I ask them what quality of components were used and they don’t know.  At this point I feel like I’ve done enough to make their day worse by making them feel uncomfortable with their decisions, so I refrain from asking them whether anyone will be around in a few years to cover the warranties they’re so happy with, or whether the payback period on their system is based on the current 13% per year price rises continuing out past 2020, or something grounded in reality.  You can see in their faces the very instant that the cognitive dissonance takes effect and then very quickly Cialdini’s commitment and consistency principle kicks into overdrive.  They will rationalise what they’ve done by saying they’ve helped reduce their impact on the planet and improved the value of their homes, and that’s not exactly wrong, but it doesn’t change the fact that they’re just bunnies.  Being prepared to part with a decent sum of folding stuff to be nicer to the planet is all well and good, but if they hadn’t been shafted they could have used all the extra cash they had towards something else that would reduce their energy use – improvements to their home to make it easier to heat in winter, or even kept it aside to help buy one of the badass all-electric cars that are gonna have a real presence on our roads soon.  They could have also just splurged it on good wine and restaurant meals – after all, it is their money.  Well, not anymore.

Obviously these kind of shameless rip-off antics are shithouse for the industry at large.  In the short term, misrepresenting products can help a few installers make a fast buck from a few sales.  Only dodgy operators can benefit from this, and it’s only a short term rape-and-pillage, cash-in-quick sort of benefit.   Do you think it helps to get panels on rooftops to have people telling their friends and relatives how they bought six panels and their bills went up?  Or when people read an ad with a headline saying “never pay bills again” right next to an ad for a 2kW system and then put it on and find that their bills have barely changed? Of course not.  It creates distrust and suspicion that falls on everyone in the industry, regardless of whether they have any part in doing these things.  It means that when you have honest claims about a genuinely amazing deal that you can offer, you find the customer’s natural wariness has been boosted with a course of anabolic skepticism steroids (those are a real thing).

At Excellence Solar, we deal with this to some extent by outlining the situation and then setting ourselves apart from it.  After starting this business I kinda figured it’d be the right time to read a few more copywriting books and they all harp on about emphasising your points of difference from the competition – the compelling reasons why they’d wanna buy from you and not that other guy.  I’m doing a fair bit of that right now (I’m sneaky like that).  I don’t think this reflects too well on the industry at large when basic things like representing the product honestly become matters of proclamation rather than assumption.  This is not how I’d prefer to differentiate our business – I’d rather be pointing to things like our install speed or how easy we make the whole process – all we’re doing here is making the best of the situation we’re faced with.

In a better world, “We won’t mislead you” wouldn’t be something we could boast about or expect credit for.  It feels a bit like saying “I show up to work” or “I pay my bills”.  These are not marks of distinction or exceptional achievement.  It should just be expected.  Chris Rock made note of something similar in Bring The Pain, hearing people brag “I take care of my kids” or “I ain’t never been to jail” – these aren’t special achievements, they’re just examples of doing what you’re supposed to do. (It’s curious how so much that happens in Aussie solar can be tied back to Chris Rock standup.  It’s hard to think it was on his mind when he wrote it.)

The good news is that we aren’t the only people in the world who think Aussie solar needs to shape up and tell the customer how it really is.  Reports like this from the ATA are encouraging. I’ve expressed frustration before at people for playing around with the empty hypotheticals of clean energy theology, so it’s nice to see something that’s actually connected to the world we live in and the grid that we currently have – to real matters of installs and bills and system sizes and power prices that people are actually paying.  The ACCC is also doing its part where it can to clean up some of the very worst behaviour.  There’s only so much Deus Ex Machina these guys can bring, however, and the very nature of what they do means that they’ll only become a factor after some damage has already been done.  Over time, I am hoping that a better informed customer base will be able to operate from a position of knowledge rather than blind trust – to deny the sharks the sales their businesses are built on.  As more people accumulate more and more real-world experience of going solar, hopefully customers will become a bit more cluey about what to look for and how to get a good deal.  It’ll be a lot harder to pull the wool over a customer’s eyes about what a 1.5kW system can actually do if the customer has already spent some time sharing the bills on a place that already has one.

Media and cultural images of the technology need to mature too.  We need to move past the far-too-easy and far-too-stupid notions of solar as either a foolproof miracle technology that you can never go wrong with, or just a bunch of snake oil that never does anybody any good.  These 2D cartoon images are not useful.  It’s time to grow up guys.  Solar is a big ticket item – for a home system, there’s a similar amount of money involved as with an inexpensive used car or a one year lease on a fairly basic one bedroom rental property.  It should be approached in much the same way.  Most of us are pretty clued in to the idea that there are a few car salesmen and real estate agents out there who want to do the right thing by people, to leave happy customers who will generate referral business for years to come – and then there’s no end of sharp operators who will say just anything to get you to sign on the dotted line.  Most of us deal with this situation pretty well – instead of letting our innate skepticism paralyse us from getting wheels or a place to live, we arm ourselves with information from independent sources and see whose claims stack up.

Just like buying a car or a house, you can get a great deal on solar or you can be swindled, different options will be suitable for people in different circumstances, and it pays to do your research.

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