In light of the recent legal action being brought against the REA and REAL, Solar Power Portal took some time to speak to Virginia Graham, Chief Executive of Renewable Energy Assurance Ltd (REAL), to explore the role that the Renewable Energy Association (REA) and REAL play in the solar sector as well as the wider renewables market.

Firstly, it is important to understand the difference between the REA and REAL:

•  The REA is a trade association for all renewable technologies that is completely voluntary to join. Its purpose is to lobby for and champion all renewable energies.

•  REAL is a subsidiary company wholly owned by the REA, which operates certification schemes and consumer codes. The REAL Consumer Code is part of the Office of Fair Trading’s (OFT) consumer code approval scheme. Its purpose is to protect consumers by enforcing the code, ensuring high industry standards.

The relaxed and gregarious Graham began by explaining how REAL came into existence, she explained: “REAL started in 2006 when we took the OFT’s core criteria and matched them to the renewables sector to come up with the REAL Code. After a lengthy process the Code was approved by the OFT.”

She continued: “Two years later the Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS) scheme started; one of the requirements on the installer side was that companies who were certified under MCS should also be signed up to an OFT consumer code. The REAL Consumer Code was the only one in that category and remains so since no other code has been set up.

Since the introduction of the FiT and the consequent rapid growth of the solar PV market, REAL has experienced a general rise in activity. Graham explained that: “More members equals more work. The scale of small generators has exploded and so has our proportion of solar PV queries.”

Recent times have seen the number of solar PV complaints increase. Not only did the turmoil surrounding last year’s fast-tracked changes to the FiT throw solar companies into turmoil, it also had a huge effect on consumers. Graham noted that after the changes were announced, REAL “saw a huge increase in the number of complaints.”

Even now as the dust has settled and industry appears to be staggering back to business-as-usual, REAL estimates that it has around 200 live complaints concerning solar PV.

Graham admits that some companies are bound to disagree with the way REAL enforces it code: “Obviously, enforcing the code doesn’t make you popular.”

One of those companies not satisfied with REAL and the REA is Crystal Doors and Windows, who is pursuing legal action over alleged incompetence.

The home improvement company claims that REAL and its parent company, the REA, has been acting beyond its powers to the detriment of the business. The claim lodged with the High Court states that by interfering with the affairs of companies, REAL is not acting “fairly, reasonably or impartially.”

Speaking on the threat of legal action, Graham noted that: “It comes with the territory. However, we always defend the Code robustly.”

Graham was quick to point out that, in comparison to total solar installs, the level of complaints received are extremely small. In fact, figures published by REAL show that nine out of ten consumers were satisfied with the way their system was installed as well as the way it was sold to them. Clearly, the vast majority of the industry is operating extremely professionally with great results.

REAL believes that the level of consumer satisfaction within the industry is testament to the effectiveness of the REAL and MCS schemes but acknowledges that there are improvements to be made.

Ensuring compliance with the Code helps stamp out practices that reflect poorly on the industry, such as high pressure selling, targeting the vulnerable, and unrealistic and misleading advertising.

So how does REAL go about enforcing the Consumer Code? Graham explained that REAL uses a number of different techniques to make sure the Consumer Code is adhered to, including auditing, mystery shopping and monitoring consumer satisfaction.

One of the biggest scourges facing the solar sector is unethical selling practices. Currently, REAL is doing all it can to protect consumers from the practice but it can be very hard to identify. Often, those who fall victim are reluctant to identify themselves. Graham explained REAL’s main line of defence against mis-selling: “Mystery shopping is a great way to pick up on unethical selling practices which is a big issue in the sector.

“The Code is pretty tough on it and it also breaches consumer protection regulations. Clarification brought forward by DECC in December last year, which specified that any company that signed a contract with a consumer must be MCS-certified, has made an enormous difference.”

Another issue that concerns REAL is that lead-generating services are not required to be MCS-certified as no contract is signed by the consumer. Graham explained that it is not clear how some lead generators are generating their leads, . This could leave the door open for unscrupulous companies to take advantage of consumers. Graham believes that “it’s very hard to make sure that the information provided to the consumer is correct” and that “some companies are more responsible than others.”

She added: “We do work closely with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and we do look very hard at the claims companies are making in their advertising materials. We don’t see the point in running the Code if we don’t enforce it robustly.”

Graham continued by facing up to that REAL eschews industry interests in favour of consumer interests too often. However, the Chief Executive takes a different view; she sees REAL’s role as enforcer of the Consumer Code and promoter of renewables, and doesn’t see a conflict between the two.

She concluded: “In the end, it helps the renewables industry if we have high standards of behaviour in the sector. We really see that our twin aim is to protect consumers and promote renewables.”