LUKE GRANT: Now, I want to follow up on these green schemes and, in particular, solar panel installations because I was astounded to learn that at Senate Estimates on Monday, the head* of the Clean Energy Regulator, Andrew Livingston, told the inquiry that, after random checks of 7000 solar units, 19 per cent were found to be substandard. That would be one in five, so the chances are along your own street there’s at least one substandard solar panel installation. This is a farce – again, what the hell is going on? – but, of course, it gets worse. Four per cent of solar units were so bad they were deemed unsafe and shut down… so bad they were irreparable. There are now more than a million solar photovoltaic units installed nationwide, the majority being rushed out during the Solar Bonus Scheme which was scrapped in 2011, so, on those estimates, there are 190,000 faulty solar power units and 40,000 so faulty they’re dangerous and need to be shut down, based on all those projections. Now, I’ll tell you this: this has ‘Pink Batts’ written all over it again. The random survey seems to back up stats from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. They received 1,613 complaints about solar systems in 2012, up from 1,229 the year before. More complaints have been made to state-based authorities and the reasons why? Well, you’ll love this – dodgy panels from places like China, fly-by-night installers… we’ve heard that before, haven’t we? This is another green scheme mess not yet talked about by most areas of the media. We called the Clean Energy Regulator to come on and explain why this appears to be such a mess and, surprise, surprise, we get a lovely email saying they can’t possibly put anyone up today – running a million miles – so I thought I’d get on the line Simon Birmingham, the South Australian Senator, who headed up questioning at Estimates earlier in the week and he joins me on the line. Senator, good to talk to you again.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good afternoon, Luke; good afternoon to your listeners.
LUKE GRANT: Now, is my schoolboy mathematics right, here? Have we potentially got something in the order of tens of thousands, maybe 30- or 40,000 – as much as, if the numbers are right – dangerous solar units out there?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Luke, that is potentially correct. The Clean Energy Regulator, as you rightly said, told Senate Estimates earlier this week that they’ve done random checks on around 7000 solar units across Australia and those checks have found four per cent of those units to be unsafe, requiring them to shut the unit down. They can, apparently, be repaired in many instances but they are shut down instantly and it does then, of course, require skilled electricians and others to come along and fix up the mess there and, in addition to that four per cent – which, if replicated across the one million-plus systems right around Australia, would mean close to 40,000 potentially unsafe systems – there’s close to around 17 per cent or thereabouts that are substandard as well, so…
LUKE GRANT: That’s amazing. It’s almost like, Senator, we’ve got Joe the handyman doing the installations here. Are you concerned about the way, again, this seemed to be rushed in and then we get people that, I don’t know, just have time on their hands; all of a sudden they’re qualified to install solar systems. Is that one of the issues here again?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Luke, I am concerned and it is a real failure of consistency in government policy. This Government has turned the tap on and off, on and off when it’s come to solar subsidies and, in doing so, has overhyped the industry initially with significant cash grants that saw a huge take-off in solar, then they recognised that this was risky and a problem so they cut the grants overnight and plenty of even reputable businesses found themselves going broke, so then they set up a new scheme, a far more technical scheme, that created solar multipliers, or ‘phantom credits’ essentially, that once again supercharged the industry and they’ve had to wind down the use of those multiplier credits at a far faster rate than the Government initially forecast because they got it so horribly wrong, so again they overstimulated the sector. There are some really good, reputable suppliers out there…
LUKE GRANT: Of course!
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: … we shouldn’t let them get a bad name because of some who are doing a bad job but unfortunately the Government has created this situation where, really, far too many fly-by-nighters had entered the industry.
LUKE GRANT: You’ve got so much to clean up if you’re elected later in the year. I mean, we could go through the whole list but… starting with boats arriving, and it will probably not end for some time, but this appears to be something else you’re going to have to focus your attention on because, if the numbers are as they are, gosh, we can’t have potentially up to 40,000 dangerous solar units out there, can we?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, look, we can’t and we’ve got to get to the bottom of just how risky they are and what the potential impacts are and how it can best be addressed and different states also have some different inspection standards that may mean there are different impacts across different areas of Australia but, look, there are a range of issues for us to address, of course, should we be elected later this year. What’s really important, though, is that we bring some sensible consistency to government and don’t have these types of erratic changes to policy that do encourage people to come in just to make a quick buck and, in doing so, we end up creating far more harm than good from the type of policies that this Government has enacted.
LUKE GRANT: Is there any chance, given the numbers… and, again, I mean, we’re projecting based on what you learnt at Estimates and it might be something in the order of tens of thousands, maybe not tens of thousands but certainly a large number. Shouldn’t, now, we have, almost like a stocktake, that every solar unit that’s been installed under potentially dodgy circumstances – in other words, by someone other than an approved installer – be properly checked now, rather than wait for something bad to happen?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I think it is a case of how you make sure, Luke, that you target your inspections where they’re most warranted and, if need be, then increase that number to those inspectors where Government should have concerns and what did worry me out of the Estimates process was: it struck me that there’s still a very small amount of targeting that’s going on. Across the 7000 inspections, there are many, many businesses and it’s actually only a handful of sites that each operator’s business could have been inspected to date, so that’s really hard for the Regulator to get a trend out of those numbers at present but I think the work needs to be done to see exactly where the trends are so that then inspections can be targeted to those operators who appear to have a poor track record so that we can make sure we pick up as many of those unsafe houses as possible.
LUKE GRANT: Alright, well, we’ll see what else comes out of Estimates through the week and I’m sure you’ll remain on top of this issue. Now, this is one without notice but Question Time – well, not for the Senate but for the House – is about to happen, so I can’t tell you and… Simon, you’re a good man. I’ve spoken to you a hundred times and I’m not just saying that to butter you up; I actually do believe that but… this one-dollar-per-vote thing [Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2013], mate, the reaction on this show this afternoon… there are a lot of angry voters out there. Surely… we’ve all got to live within our means – shouldn’t that be expected of political parties? What’s this extra dollar per vote so important for that you wouldn’t, I think, do the right thing and say to the Government ‘no, it’s not happening’?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Luke, we’ve got to have our internal debates on this issue and I haven’t seen legislation from the Government as yet. I don’t know if it’s been publicly released or not as to exactly what their proposal is. I’m very conscious that there is a public reaction here. Equally, there’s a public concern to make sure that political parties have very transparent and tight arrangements around their disclosure of their donations and we’ve got to get the balance right here. If you put too much of an impost on political parties, it basically stops them effectively fundraising or they’ve got to fund themselves some other way but, equally, we’ve got to be very careful with taxpayers’ money, especially when the budget’s so tight, and make sure we get the balance right and, when I finally see the legislation and get the chance to talk to my fellow Coalition colleagues about it, that’s the test and the ruler that I’ll be running over it.
LUKE GRANT: Okay, well, again… and I’ll wait to see what your reaction is, but we had the Senator… John Madigan on who leaves the program as potentially Elvis and the rest of you are villains. I wouldn’t think too long about it, Simon, and I don’t say it because I’m talking to you. You’re a level-headed decent bloke. I’m sure you can see that, if that dollar thing rears its ugly head, it’s going to do more damage than good.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I appreciate what you’re saying, Luke, and I’m certainly getting the feedback.
LUKE GRANT: Good on you. Thanks a lot for your time, Simon, as always.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: A pleasure, cheers.
LUKE GRANT: Good to talk to you. That’s Senator Simon Birmingham and, again – I’ll say it a third time – he is a good operator. He’s a decent man and it’s good that he had time to make himself available to talk about solar and to address that dollar-a-vote thing…
*Executive General Manager, Renewables and Carbon Farming Division (in the Chief Executive Officer’s absence from Estimates)