Local solar companies say the premature announcement of the ACT Government’s solar loans scheme has left them struggling to survive.
In January, the ACT Government announced the $150 million Sustainable Household Scheme would provide zero-interest loans of $2,000 to $15,000 for rooftop solar panels, household battery storage, zero emissions vehicles, and energy-efficient electric appliances – part of the government’s plan to make the ACT (the first 100% renewable energy city outside Europe) emissions free by 2045.
“This Fund will be one of the most significant investments in clean energy ever in the ACT, reducing the cost of living and creating jobs for Canberrans into the future,” Chief Minister Andrew Barr said at the time.
A spokesperson for the Chief Minister said the Government intended to open the solar scheme this financial year (i.e., by the end of June), and expand it to all eligible Canberra households in the first quarter of next financial year (July–September 2021), six to eight months after it was first announced.
Although the solar scheme was designed to encourage Canberrans to buy solar, local companies say business has plummeted. Canberrans, it seems, want solar; but they don’t want to pay for it themselves if they don’t have to.
“Nobody is buying; they’re waiting for the grant to be released,” Sumandeep Dhillon, of Capital Solar Energy, said.
Bin Wang, operations manager at Mondiaux Solar, said business has gone down dramatically to 40% compared with last year.
“A lot of potential clients and customers lodged their inquiries, but they are waiting for the scheme to come out,” he said. “People are entering, but they don’t want to move forward; they don’t want to walk into the door.”
Mafiz Uddin, of Canberra Solar Shine, estimates sales have dropped 70 to 75%. His company used to install 15 jobs a week; now, hardly four or five.
“From January, we are facing [the fact] that almost every customer is saying: ‘Oh, we’re just waiting for the government scheme.’ They don’t know when it’s going to be applied, but they know that the government will give it to them. They thought from January they would get it any time. It’s almost four months now. Still, we are not confirmed, but customers are still just waiting.”
Sales might have fallen, but running costs remain the same. Mondiaux Solar, established in 2011, has a team of 21. Mr Uddin’s, started three years ago, has 15 employees, besides keeping offices and expenses open. Mr Dhillon only started his company last August; he said he was fortunate not to have many employees, but worried how bigger companies would fare.
The three businesses consider the Scheme itself an excellent initiative to (in Mr Wang’s words) support the local community and recommend people go with renewable, sustainable energy.
“Everyone loves the Scheme, and we love the Scheme,” Mr Dhillon said. “The only problem is they released the information too early.”
Mr Dhillon and Mr Wang want the government to speed up the process. Mr Uddin thinks this is unlikely, but wants an end to the uncertainty.
“We need a certain date so that at least we can be confident: ‘OK, we have to suffer the next couple of months’,” he said. “If we know it’s going to start on 1 July or 1 October, then we could make a plan. ‘OK, I have to do this; I can stop this one; I can run this one.’ But we don’t know anything. There is no particular time. There is no particular deadline.”
In the meantime, Mr Uddin suggested, the government should give interest-free loans to companies. “So at least we can survive, we can keep paying the rent, keep paying insurance.”
The ACT businesses also want the government to give preference to local (including Queanbeyan) companies. Mr Uddin believes only established companies that have been in business for at least a year should be eligible, to prevent Sydney or Melbourne companies muscling in. Mr Dhillon suggested that as with light rail, only companies with a Secure Local Jobs Code should be able to tender. This, he said, would benefit the local economy; every house in the ACT will need solar to meet the government’s 100% renewable energy target.
In a general statement, the ACT Government said it was consulting the solar industry to ensure checks and balances were in place; the industry had been involved throughout the design of the solar scheme, and feedback had been hugely positive.
“This scheme will provide a huge boost to the renewable technology sector, by opening up access to rooftop solar and household batteries to thousands of Canberra households who cannot currently afford the upfront costs,” a spokesperson for Mr Barr said.
“Canberrans are clearly interested in accessing the scheme, creating a solid pipeline of work for the industry for years to come.”
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