Interview with David Shea, Owner, Energy Craft NT

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I have known Dave for a long time – we were in flight school together way back in the day. We have taken very different paths, but interestingly they now intersect again, with Dave very heavily involved in renewable energy systems installation. This interview gives a pretty unique take on the view from someone on the ground, who has to compete with a pretty challenging environment in the north of Australia.

David Shea, Energy Craft NT
David and his wife, Emily.

Who is Energy Craft NT and what is the purpose of the business? 

Family owned and operated business based in Darwin, servicing all the Northern Territory supplying and installing solar energy systems on-grid, off-grid, hot water through PV (not thermal solar) and electric vehicle charging stations.

How large is the business and what is the aim to become in the next 10 years?

We have three employees including myself, an administration assistant, and a trade assistant. Two vehicles working from our home in Darwin. I actually plan to maintain my small business as is. I have had business before that operated in four states and employed 30 plus staff with 12 vehicles, and what I found was quality and professionalism failed!

The high standard I maintain can only realistically be achieved by myself and those I train directly as apprentices. The future of my business will be offered to my sons if they wish to follow in their fathers’ footsteps, but that is at least another 8 – 15 years away! In saying that my goal is to integrate EV charging with integrated solar power systems and as such, I have had training in EV charging and already have the ten plus years of experience with solar energy systems.

EVs will no doubt over the next few years reach a pricing parity with internal combustion vehicles, and as I fell into solar back when John Howard was Prime Minister, I have seen the signs of another good thing to come.

The high standard I maintain can only realistically be achieved by myself and those I train directly as apprentices

David Shea, owner, Energy Craft NT

What kind of systems are you most seeing installed? 

In the NT, most systems are Grid connected systems without batteries. 6.5kW array with a 5kW inverter on single phase properties and 9.3kW array with a 7kW inverter for 3 phase domestic and small commercial properties. We are also installing a good number of commercial systems from 30kW – 100kW.

How can a household go completely “off-grid” with systems from you? 

Right now with current government feed-in tariffs in the NT, it is actually not beneficial to go off-grid, unless of course power would cost more than $50K to get to your home. The NT government offers a ‘one-for-one’ feed-in tariff, and for a domestic home, the price of 1kWh is $0.26 inc GST. However, if a client wanted to go off-grid, I only recommend premium products, and as such, they are expensive yet are the most reliable.

Being in the tropics, heat, and humidity are against most products on offer in the rest of the country, including Lithium batteries. Lithiums claim high temp capabilities when discharging but what is not talked about is their capacity to recharge under higher than 25°C temps which is to say – poor.

My personal preference is Super Caps as they have basically unlimited cycles and have an 80°C ambient temp tolerance. Also, their discharge and recharge capacities are enormous and are usually limited by the inverters/chargers capacity to deliver and not the storage unit’s limitations. Super Caps have not gained the many years of testing like other chemistries, but have impressed so far, and the manufacturer offers a full replacement warranty for ten years – backing their product.

Dave installing an off-grid system in Bynoe, NT

How do you view the future viability of microgrids and P2P energy trading (like Power Ledger) in more urban areas – like Darwin?

It would be ideal in Darwin! It is a small grid disconnected from the National Energy Grid, and many communities and towns run off gas-fired or diesel generators. So yes, it would be a benefit in my opinion, but that requires capital investment, and the NT government is far from flush with cash!

What is the use case for a residential wind turbine? POOR! In my decade-plus of experience, I have only found disappointed owners of wind turbines. They do not perform well in most cases. Especially in the NT, where the expenses do NOT justify the poor performance.

Are you seeing many of the new Tesla Powerwall or similar batteries being installed? Do they integrate well with the other systems from Energy Craft?

Honestly, I have not seen one yet! I have given my details to Tesla as a potential installer, but Tesla is not interested in working with small businesses.

How much maintenance does a typical solar electricity system need? What are the main actions?

Maintenance is generally very light. However, there are a set of recommended maintenance items set out by the Australian Standards. When it comes to domestic systems, it would be expensive for an owner to arrange for an installer to conduct the list outlined, hence eating into the owners’ savings gained by the system. So despite the recommendations, I find very few customers calling me back for regular maintenance checkups.

In saying that, I do let each client know that it pays to clean the modules twice a year, especially during the dry season. Also, I ask them to regularly check the system is working by simply looking at the function light on the inverter to know it is at least operational!

Are the warranties on solar panels actually useful? Do you do many/any warranty repairs? 

On solar panels, the warranties are all but useless… Yep, I said it. I find customers who want expensive modules for their apparent exceptional performance and extended warranties are wasting their money.

Firstly – in a decade, the product will be inferior in price, quality, and technology. Secondly – no manufacturer/importer will keep that module model on the shelves once they are made redundant. They will have something similar but not the same. That’s ok you might say, but then the customer has to pay for me to come and first of all diagnose the problem. Then if they want me to source the warranty, they will have to pay for my time through the whole process, including the installation of the replacement module.

The client will likely be up for a $300 – $500 bill from me because the warranty does NOT cover the installers’ time… Only the module itself! In other words, why bother when that module will save very little on its own. I can talk a long time about why warranties over ten years are pointless, but that would have to be a conversation topic.

commercial solar installation
An Energy Craft NT installed 100kw commercial system.

Apart from actually installing “green” systems, what actions does Energy Craft take to protect the environment? 

Mostly we try to ensure that the large amount of packaging is recycled; what can be anyway. Darwin itself has recycling facilities available. Otherwise, I am a big supporter of EVs and would like to replace my vehicles with EVs using solar and storage to recharge them. However, EVs do not quite have the range I need at this stage. So I just have not made that step yet.

Where do you see the future of solar and wind in the NT? 

The NT is so sparse with a large amount of sunshine. It is ideal for export! Again, the capital expenditure is high, but Australia as a whole could export its solar power if it was cost-effective to do so. But realistically solar, not wind, is an excellent option in the NT if coupled with cost-effective energy storage systems. Storage systems will improve as the world adopts EVs in earnest and storage technology leaps forward as a result. That’s my take.

The Energy Bit, and particularly me, wish to thank Dave for his contribution here, and for sharing some insight from his perspective. Feel free to leave a comment and make sure to check out our other interviews and articles on our homepage, or continue the discussion on our Facebook and Twitter pages.

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