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Putting the strategy into solar

Summer 2013 saw the launch of the Government's first strategy for solar energy in a move which marks the sector's 'coming of age' according to Energy and Climate Change Minister Greg Barker. Mark Elliott explains.
Without beating about the bush, the solar industry has not had the most stable of existences. For at least 18 months, it could be argued that UK solar was in crisis.

The changes to feed-in-tariff schemes set manufacturers and the government at each other's throats, with legal challenges, volatility, bankruptcies and much chest-thumping.

In March 2012, there was one week with 123MW of new installations while the following week recorded just 5MW.

For small businesses in the HVAC sector, this uncertainty meant that solar was seen as a huge risk.

With the launch of the Government's solar strategy later this year, it is essential that those HVAC businesses which have feared solar technology to date now start to engage.

Solar will play a key role in the UK's overarching energy mix over the coming 20 years. Long gone is the perception of a disorganised start-up industry; the Government expects a total of 22GW of installed capacity in the UK by 2020, a substantial growth on the existing 2.5GW. This will require professional businesses operating to high quality standards to deliver real industry change.

There is a tangible opportunity here for HVAC professionals to position themselves as home energy advisors, rather than simply installers.

Building customer confidence and satisfaction is critical for the long-term viability of the solar industry.

In the past, many systems have been sold on a 'fit and forget' basis, but contractors now need to consider the longer-term revenue streams available through ongoing energy efficiency consultancy and high quality maintenance packages.

The focus should be on putting customers in the driving seat and giving them the accurate information to make strategic decisions, with guidance from a trained installer, on renewable energy.

Technology already exists to help installers build relationships with their customers, as well as helping homeowners to make strategic energy decisions.

For example, through new energy monitoring systems around the home, householders can see what they are spending and can make intelligent choices on when to use the free energy, rather than selling it back to the grid.

Doing the washing and tumble drying at night to keep costs down may become a redundant activity, as consumers will be able to literally take advantage of cheaper fuel while the sun shines.

This not only saves them money, but also accelerates the payback time on the installation. The industry needs to home in on the benefits of strategically using electricity generated by a solar installation, rather than the headline of 'selling excess back to the grid'.

The working relationship between the distributor, installer and customer is critical to ensuring that technology is fully utilised and that customers receive an expert service over the whole lifetime of the solar installation.

A solid chain of information and support, pre and post installation, is vital and customers need to be able to tap into dedicated support for many years after initial fitting.

Of course, it isn't just about the installation of renewable energy technology; the full benefits of measures such as solar panels will only be realised if they are supported by wider efforts to encourage people to be more energy efficient.

Installations are often out of sight, out of mind, so encouraging the behavioural change needed to achieve the true benefits of solar power has been difficult in the past.

Ultimately, installers need to make use of the right equipment and software so that they can provide home and business owners with something tangible to measure the return on their solar investment.

This will increase their satisfaction and help boost the sales channel for HVAC businesses and installers through recommendations and word-of-mouth. With the dramatic fall in solar PV raw material prices, the only real value in monetary terms is in the intelligent installer advising the more sophisticated homeowner through remote monitoring - through technology that is here and now.

Let's have an intelligent discussion about true value for money and the faster return on investment through building better relationships between the installer community and the consumer.

// The author is chief operating officer at Energeno //
13 August 2013

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