Preventing a pink batts disaster MkII

With the energy efficiency sector yet to shrug off the PR disaster of the insulation rebate program, scams and poor practices under the Victorian Energy Efficiency Target have to be stamped out quickly.

Just about everyone has a horror story to tell about pushy door-to-door salesmen. As the saying goes, you get what you pay for. So when you have young, unskilled people employed on a temporary basis and paid via commission to knock on doors to sell a product under little supervision guess what happens?

A little-known Melbourne print publication called The Nose contains a light-hearted, and less than contrite, confession from a guy with the pseudonym Max Power, outlining how he defrauded the Victorian Energy Efficiency Target by falsely claiming energy saving certificates. While his revelations do not provide proof of widespread fraud, they could do considerable damage to the cause of energy efficiency, and undermine the prospects for a national energy efficiency target.

At present the vast majority of energy saving certificates created under the Victorian Energy Saver scheme are from the installation of stand-by power controllers. These power boards are intended to automatically switch-off appliances when not in use to save on standby power usage.

Unfortunately in practice some models of power boards can be rather crude and inconvenient in how they seek to do this. For example they can switch-off a television as frequently as every hour if the viewer does nothing to adjust the television, such as change volume or station. While some power controllers are adjustable or have more sophisticated ways of sensing when an appliance is not being used, the internet contains numerous complaints about intrusive and inconvenient power controllers.

Due to the ability to earn revenue via creating energy efficiency certificates, companies have been providing these power boards at wide scale across Victoria free of charge. Max Power was hired to door knock and install some of the poorer quality power boards, receiving $10 commission for every power board he could persuade householders to accept.

While this would seem like money for jam giving a product away for free that should save money, Power found it wasn’t that easy. A large number of households already had these boards installed and so were not eligible for energy efficiency certificates. In addition a number of households had been burnt previously with badly designed power boards. 

It is apparent from the article that Max Power came to the conclusion that the whole Victorian Energy Efficiency Target program was a bit of a scam. From his own experience he felt the power boards were unlikely to save much power as they would be uninstalled by householders in frustration at their television switching off mid-program. And he also seems to have the rather illogical, but widespread belief that for an emissions reduction program to be genuine somehow energy retailers must be financially penalised. 

So under the belief that this was all a bit of a game, Power filled out energy efficiency certificate assignment forms with names of friends and family, but then threw the power boards provided by his employer in the bin.

Unfortunately Max Power’s story is a not a new one, nor is it a problem confined to energy efficiency. 

In my own neighbourhood we had a young punk knocking on doors to get people to change to energy retailer Lumo Energy, by pretending he represented THE energy company (i.e. the old SECV) for the local area and claiming that there were problems with our bills. When I bring up this story with senior staff at energy retailers they roll their eyes, let out a long breath, and then talk about how much easier life would be if the government outlawed door-to-door sales.

However energy is an area where a large proportion of householders are incredibly apathetic and unengaged. While there is a lot of political heat surrounding power prices, the reality is that a large proportion of households simply don’t bother to actively engage in how to reduce their power bills. Door-to-door sales are one of the best ways of overcoming this apathy by forcing consumers to engage and think about their energy usage.  

This presents a major challenge for those who believe that energy efficiency offers great potential to save consumers money and help the environment. The sector is still yet to shrug off the PR disaster of the insulation rebate program. Those in government and industry that are committed to energy efficiency must be incredibly vigilant of these kinds of Max Power scenarios emerging.

If not, you can kiss goodbye any future government program to support uptake of energy efficiency.

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