James Moore, The Independent
Solar power has become a hot ticket. Get panels on your roof and the energy crisis goes from major surgery to painful procedure. Get panels on lots of roofs and it has the potential to reduce the nationâ€™s emissions and its reliance on wholesale gas markets, which go into overdrive when powerful psychopaths decide to start killing people in neighbouring countries.
Thereâ€™s a reason Tory backbencher Andrew Mitchell, writing for The Guardian, said of solar (and also wind): â€œWe should be in no doubt where our price and security of supply interests now lie.â€
So, thought my wife and I, weâ€™ve some money saved up. Weâ€™re green-minded. One of us has been writing columns urging action on the climate crisis for years and would like not to be seen as a fool or hypocrite (okay, you can be the judge of the former). Letâ€™s do it.
We duly signed up to mayor of London Sadiq Khanâ€™s super duper solar scheme. Iâ€™m being sarcastic there, but youâ€™ll see why in a moment. The mayorâ€™s scheme is actually a fine idea. The problem with a solar set-up is that it can be horribly expensive upfront. Yes, it will eventually pay for itself, but it takes a long time, even though that has come down for obvious reasons.
Solar Together neatly addresses the cost issue by pooling people together and getting companies that install the panels to bid on big, bulk orders, in a reverse auction (cheapest wins) which reduces the unit price to the individual. Think of it like a green Groupon. It involves a number of local councils, not just London. Registration is currently open for Hampshire, Hertfordshire, Liverpool, Norfolk and Suffolk. By making it cheaper, you obviously make solar more accessible to more people. In the absence of a more strategically minded government taking action to boost take-up through, say, tax breaks or grants, itâ€™s a win-win. Well, it ought to be.
Problems arise if the company that wins the bid isnâ€™t up to snuff. This has been our experience with an operation called Green Energy Together, which has turned our green energy dreams into a nightmare of cancellations, hours spent on the phone, and customer service ranging from supercilious to non-existent.
On five separate occasions, we waited hopefully for the promised kit to arrive. On five separate occasions, those hopes were dashed. If that sounds bad â€” and it is â€” I came across one person whoâ€™d endured seven such cancellations, sometimes without so much as a text to alert the householder.This is how you earn a TrustPilot rating of â€œpoorâ€ (1.8 stars in this case). Some 61 per cent of the reviews are straight up â€œbadâ€ (one star).
Hereâ€™s a lesson from a school governor who sat in on some procurement decisions: the cheapest isnâ€™t always the best. It can leave you with a heap of expensive problems. It can damage the reputation of a scheme or industry.
Needless to say, this has proved particularly difficult for us, because one of us (me) has disabilities, which means I canâ€™t help with the house stuff that needs to be moved around if the installers ever turn up â€” now highly doubtful. We therefore have to work around my partnerâ€™s schedule. This is hardly a unique problem, or one just related to disability. People have jobs, kids etc. Their carefully laid plans to be home for the installation crewâ€™s arrival can get thrown for a loop if they donâ€™t turn up, and work that is promised just vanishes.
I can see one possible explanation for whatâ€™s happened here â€” I contacted the company but got no response â€” is that they simply canâ€™t cope with the demand. If thatâ€™s the case, where is the oversight from the mayor? This is bigger than just the pain endured by us and an unhappy selection of TrustPilot reviewers.
I fear unpleasant experiences like ours are inevitably going to become more common. Companies finding themselves in a booming â€” and inadequately regulated â€” market with lots of eager customers often behave with insouciance, if not outright contempt for those customers. The reputation of the industry gets damaged, and by extension, one means of improving Britainâ€™s energy independence and emissions record, as Andrew Mitchell rightly recognised. Public sector bodies like the mayorâ€™s office (a spokesman said tackling climate change was â€œa top priorityâ€) should look carefully at the companies they are dealing with.