Solar players warn of counterfeit solar panel scams

South Africa is seeing an increase in the sale of counterfeit and substandard solar panels by unregistered suppliers, amid the country’s worsening power crisis.

This is according to local photovoltaic solar power industry players, who warn that unscrupulous solar system suppliers are entering the local market.

This, as South Africans increasingly look to renewable energy systems and products to free themselves from Eskom and load-shedding.

However, the high price of these systems, further exacerbated by the current equipment supply shortages, resulted in them being out of reach for the average South African household, according to industry pundits.

Matthew Cruise, spokesperson for Hohm Energy,a local solar equipment marketplace, tells ITWeb: “Unfortunately, fraudulent practices can occur in any industry, including the solar energy sector.While we cannot comment on specific statistics, the issue of fake solar panels is a concern globally.

“A lot of our customers are coming to us after having already had a bad experience with trying other ways of getting solar installed. It is important for consumers to exercise caution when dealing with resellers or distributors offering unrealistically low prices.”

According to Cruise,fake solar panels are counterfeit or low-quality products falsely labelled as genuine solar panels.

These panels often do not meet the required performance and safety standards, leading to inefficient energy generation and potential safety risks for consumers.

“In addition, the warranties will not be serviced when the panel does not perform according to the original equipment manufacturer specifications, as they are fake panels made by another company,” he notes.

Matthew Cruise, spokesperson for Hohm Energy.
Matthew Cruise, spokesperson for Hohm Energy.

Ahren Posthumus, spokesperson for solar power initiative SunCash and CEO of Momint, comments: “This is certainly a trend in our country, which we can trace back to a number of pyramid schemes that have left South Africans financially devastated on a number of occasions.

“These products and companies make their way into our market because consumers will rarely confirm their company registration number with the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission − meaning most of these operators are not even registered businesses in our country.

“This issue has been compounded by the fact that solar technology remains prohibitively expensive for the majority of South Africans.”

According to Posthumus, government’s introduction of a tax rebate for solar systems has further boosted the popularity of solar alternatives in households across the country.

People who install rooftop solar panels during the period of 1 March 2023 to 29 February 2024 are eligible for a rebate of 25% of the panel cost, with a maximum rebate limit of R15 000, according to government.

“But tax breaks do little to insulate citizens from the cost of a full installation. So, when consumers spot a good deal online, they make the investment quickly, as fears of a dark and cold winter continue to press on our collective decision-making processes,” Posthumus states.

According to Cruise, another growing crime trend is criminals posing as resellers/distributors of affordable solar systems and conning unsuspecting customers into paying a deposit before running away with the funds.

“This is a trend that has been on the rise in South Africa, as more people are looking to solar systems for their businesses or homes to avoid load-shedding. It is important for consumers to exercise caution when dealing with resellers or distributors offering unrealistically low prices.”

Tell-tale signs

Counterfeit products may originate from unauthorised manufacturers, unauthorised resellers, or even criminal organisations seeking to exploit the growing demand for solar energy products, warns Cruise.

To determine the legitimacy of a reseller or distributor, consumers should conduct thorough due diligence, he adds.

“It is advisable to research the reputation and credibility of the company online through doing a Google search and reading whatever you can find. Customers can request references or testimonials from previous customers, and verify their physical address and contact details.

“Reputable companies are typically transparent about their credentials, certifications and affiliations with industry organisations. It is also advisable to consult industry experts or seek recommendations from trusted sources before making any financial commitments,” says Cruise.

Abraham van der Merwe, CEO of Stage Zero, says the safest way for consumers to avoid falling victim to unscrupulous sellers is to buy from reputable local distributors that have well-established supply chains with reputable vendors.

“Customers must also ensure they buy stock from tier-one suppliers. Good suppliers should do quality assurance tests, where they test panels out of received batches. Customers can also ask for test reports to verify whether this has been done.”

Posthumus adds that consumers should ensure their purchase is underpinned by a legally-binding contract, with a guarantee spanning between 10 and 30 years.

“Sadly, the rate of our power outages has increased exponentially, forcing citizens to make the transition without enough time to fully vet the companies they are purchasing their solar equipment from. The contract behind your solar cell purchase creates a legal liability that protects you as a solar cell investor.”

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