By Peter Hannam / The Sydney Morning Herald / 14 December 2018

Almost one in three households report having problems with their solar panels but experiences are improving and more than half are considering if they can use batteries to get off the grid, a survey by Choice has found.

The nationwide poll of 1028 residents taken in May and June – the consumer group’s second such poll since its first in 2014 – found solar system price drops of about 60 per cent in six years had brought average payback times down to five years.

“The entry point is a lot more accessible for consumers,” said Linda Przhedetsky, Choice’s complex markets campaigner, adding “many people are really engaged and interested in what they’re getting back from the solar panel purchase”.

Australia has one of the highest rates of take-up of solar photovoltaics, and recently passed the two-million mark for homes. Electricity price rises have been a driving factor, with power now accounting for its largest share of income – at 2.5 per cent of household spending – on record.

Maximising the benefits of solar, though, is not a matter of “set-and-forget”, Ms Przhedetsky said, with challenges for consumers starting before panels go up on rooftops.

The survey found a third of respondents sought just one quote from an installer, breaking what should be the first rule to shop around. A third also reported experiencing a problem, with a similar proportion saying they had issues with their installer.

“Solar installers appear to be lifting their game with service quality improving in more recent years,” the survey found, adding independent installers were “often more reliable than the major players”.

“People who had their system installed by Origin were more likely to have experienced significant delays (17 per cent) and problems with the installation (52 per cent) than people who had their system installed by an independent/local installer or electrician (3 per cent and 21 per cent, respectively),” the survey found.

For its part, Origin noted the survey did not specify the timeframe of when households installed their panels.

“Origin regularly seeks customer feedback and over the last 12-18 months this shows that the majority of our solar customers are likely to recommend Origin’s solar service to a friend or colleague,” a spokesman said, noting the company was the largest in the country with more than 1 million panels installed.

Payback times

Once installed, about half of respondents said the payback period for panels was the same or shorter than they were told to expect by the installer, while one in 10 said it was longer.

If residents experienced a technical issue, the inverter was the most likely culprit. However, about four in five of the inverter issues happened within five years and were likely to be covered by a warranty, the survey found.

While many solar owners actively watch their panels’ performance, just under half relied on quarterly power bills to track their output – a method Choice recommends against: “If the system stops working, you won’t know about it ’till your next bill.”

Ms Przhedetsky said owners should also find out what’s needed to maximise output, including cleaning panels.

“You need to check, you need to maintain, and you need to talk to your installer so you know your system is functioning correctly,” she said.

Similarly, owners will do well to consider any impacts when switching power providers.

“We assessed a whole lot of bills,” Ms Przhedetsky said. “A lot of people with solar installs could actually be saving a lot more, so it’s really important that’s factored in.”

Overall, grid-connected owners reported receiving an average feed-in tariff of 27 cents per kiloWatt-hour for surplus power, with NSW owners reporting the lowest at 12 cents/kWh.

While batteries feature in less than 10 per cent of responding households, they are on the minds of many.

Average system size has roughly tripled since the earlier survey for new installations to more than 6kW, indicating the potential to store excess generation.

About half of respondents said batteries were too expensive now, but a larger share – 55 per cent – said they would consider going off the grid entirely if they could, the survey found.


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