14 Dec Avoiding the pitfalls of poor quality solar and energy equipment
Q&A with Andrew Pearce, GM of Project Development, Verdia
Electricity prices in Australia are rising. The shut down of the Hazelwood coal power plant – among other drivers – is currently leading to increases in electricity prices of 20 – 40 per cent on the East Coast. Many parts of the country, including South Australia, will experience even more significant uplifts.
It’s clear that businesses are increasingly looking to achieve better energy efficiency and exploring a move to alternative, cleaner energy sources. There is strong momentum towards renewable energy in Australia. But what are the pitfalls?
We sat down with Andrew Pearce, Verdia’s General Manager of Project Development, to find out how businesses can avoid costly mistakes and get a renewable energy or energy efficient solution that delivers real savings.
Andrew, tell us about your background in renewables and energy efficiency.
I’ve spent about 10 years in the solar industry. Before I joined Verdia I worked at SunEdison, and prior to that, Ingenero. I’ve looked after thousands of solar projects from residential and commercial, to industrial and utility level. A particular highlight was leading the design and implementation of the largest rooftop PV installation in Australia, for the University of Queensland.
It’s really important for our clients that when they work with Verdia, they know they are getting that kind of experience on their projects. My colleagues and my team have similarly broad experience across hundreds of solar and energy efficiency projects; so in terms of quality, between us we’ve seen everything – from the good, to the bad and the downright ugly.
Can you tell us what Verdia does and how it relates to quality in renewables and energy efficiency?
Verdia’s mission is to accelerate Australia’s transition to a cleaner energy economy. We help our commercial, industrial and government clients take control of their energy costs and get smart about how to generate, use and manage energy.
One of the biggest challenges our clients face, is knowing which solution, vendor and equipment to purchase – a decision that’s made more complicated when you consider that the market is highly fragmented, with variable quality.
We have an accreditation program that assures the quality of the equipment, the vendor and the overall solution. Verdia accredited partners represent the pinnacle of quality and service within the renewables and energy efficiency industries. Behind their accreditation is Verdia’s in-depth due diligence program – the only one of its kind.
As a business thinking about undertaking a solar, renewable or energy efficiency project – where should I start?
Many businesses we meet have already been approached by dozens of providers offering solar solutions. But unfortunately, it’s not as simple as finding the cheapest quote and going for it. That’s really the biggest mistake you could make.
You have to start with your business case. Which often, providers aren’t considering because they come with a particular solar panel or lighting solution to sell, or a preconceived outcome.
Getting the business case right means looking at your operations, your current energy usage patterns and deciding on the right solution for your circumstances. For example, if your busiest time is at night, solar panels are obviously unlikely to be right for you. But a combination of power factor correction and lighting upgrades could make a huge a difference. It’s horses for courses.
Once you know what solution will work best for you, Verdia will help its clients to evaluate the best funding option for their circumstances. Verdia can help arrange competitive finance to ensure you are cashflow positive from the outset and have the solution paid off in a timeframe that suits you. It’s so important to get these first principles right, because you want the system to deliver really good results over the long term – and you want to get the savings you’re expecting.
You’ve recently been to China to visit the factories where solar and energy efficient equipment is produced. What did you find out?
That’s right. Part of our due diligence process is not just to take the manufacturer’s word for it about the way equipment is produced and shipped. We want to see for ourselves. It was a pretty gruelling trip, but well worth the effort. Based on my findings from the factory tours, there is some equipment that will make it onto our approved list, and some that definitely won’t.
Unfortunately, right now there is a glut in production in China which means – as the biggest market for solar energy in the world – Australia is seeing a huge influx of cheap, poor quality solar equipment. This is really sad, at a time when the urgency to move to renewables has never been greater.
As another part of our due diligence program, we’re working with an overseas university to implement an independent testing program where we’ll be able to look at whether the quality of a particular panel is as the supplier says it is. Any panels that fail, we’ll take them off our approved list.
Back in Australia, our accredited equipment partners love that we provide this additional layer of independent testing, so they know that the products they are using and recommending are as good as they believe them to be.
Evidently quality can be an issue in solar and energy efficiency equipment. But aren’t there standards in place to protect us, in Australia?
That’s true. There are standards in place. But, in simple terms, the standards are more about safety than the long term performance of the equipment or system. There are also some grey areas which are open to interpretation. And finally, experience plays a part. For example, UV stabilised cable may be warranted by the manufacturer to be in the sun for up to 10 years; but at Verdia, our experience across thousands of projects tells us it needs to be protected or it won’t last, and the potential for future problems is high. However, the installer might be happy to put it in without protection, because he’s met the standards and the warranty is in place. So, that’s the difference that Verdia brings, with a deeply experienced team who are on the client’s side when it comes to getting the best results.
Can I just use my local electrician to install my solar or energy efficient system?
I’d really counsel against that. While your electrician is probably great at what he or she does; solar and energy efficiency systems need someone really experienced to design them for your particular needs, install them and make sure they’re working properly. This is especially true in the commercial space with larger, more complex installations compared to the residential market.
As an example, I’ve been out on sites where only half the system was running – either because some of the panels were never connected or they’ve been switched off. In one case the customer was completely happy with how the system was performing – they had no idea that they could be getting double the savings if they just connected the other half of the system!
How can I tell if my solar or energy efficiency system is performing as it should?
This is one of the fundamental problems businesses come up against. It’s very difficult for the layperson to tell the difference between a system that’s performing well and one that isn’t.
So many variables can affect the performance of the system. For example the time of year, whether the company downsizes, whether they change equipment or the way they do something. All these things – and more – can change the amount of energy you’re using or the amount of energy the system is producing, making your solar system look like it’s performing better or worse.
The only objective way to measure the performance of your system is through a really good asset monitoring solution; which is something we always do for our clients. That way we can fix any issues that arise quickly, and make sure customers are getting the optimum results and savings from their system.