Federal Energy Minister unleashes a hailstorm of safety warnings on rooftop PV

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Federal Energy Minister Angus Taylor followed up yesterday’s acrimonious Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Energy Council meeting with a dire warning for state governments about the safety of rooftop solar systems.

His assertion that people’s lives may be at risk is based on interpretation of the national audit of the Renewable Energy Target released by the Australian National Audit Office on December 17, and was headlined by The Australian newspaper this morning as “Warning of deaths over solar panel installation”.

The audit itself reported that, from the time it began its annual inspections of “small generation units” (for rooftop solar, that means not more than 100 kW capacity) in 2011, until mid-August 2018 it had undertaken 24,371 inspections. Noting that compliance standards had become more stringent over time, it said, “Between 21.7 and 25.7 per cent of inspected installations were rated as ‘unsafe’ or ‘sub–standard’ each year.”

Those deemed “unsafe” in 2018 made up 2.7%.

Taylor said to The Australian and similarly on radio programs around the country today, “I’ve written to every state and territory minister highlighting the severity of the issue … we want to make sure safety comes first … This is a rapidly growing industry and we can’t risk people’s lives.”

This afternoon, the Clean Energy Council (CEC) issued a statement in response, saying that the solar industry is one of the most heavily regulated areas of electrical safety in the country. “Obviously no industry is perfect,” said CEC chief executive, Kane Thornton, “but the percentage of unsafe systems has declined this decade from 4.2 per cent to 2.7 per cent. This is better than the electrical industry as a whole.”

Graphed ratings of total inspections (not installations) up to mid-August 2018, provided by the Australian National Audit Office and Clean Energy Regulator.

The Clean Energy Council is responsible for installer accreditation, training and disciplinary action. Over the period of its jurisdiction it has liaised with the Clean Energy Regulator on regular findings of the National Audit as they relate to renewable energy installations, and implemented training programs and requirements of its accredited solar PV installers in line with those findings.

Says Thornton, “The audit report noted that a single element that is not completely up to scratch does not mean a system is unsafe. We will use the report — as we do with similar reports from the Clean Energy Regulator which are published every year — to further improve the standards and compliance across the industry.”

Electrical bodies in each Australian state are responsible for electrical safety, and Thornton says, “The Clean Energy Council has lobbied for some time for a single national electricity body to ensure greater consistency of approach including improved resourcing and consistent inspection programs.”

This year, a survey of 1028 rooftop solar owners across Australia by the consumer advocacy group Choice revealed that, “Customer satisfaction levels are high across most brands of solar systems.” And “The vast majority of respondents rated the performance of their panels, inverter and batteries positively.”

This was despite some one-third of respondents having experienced a problem with their system, and a similar number of solar uses having experienced problems with their installer.

The Choice findings support the audit note, and the CEC’s assertion that, “Both the safety and quality of solar power installations continue to improve as a result of initiatives introduced by the industry, and the bar has already been set very high.” Its survey found: “Owners of systems installed after 2016 gave their installers a higher rating than owners of systems installed in 2013 or prior, indicating a lift in standards.”

The CEC advises prospective solar customers and those now increasing the capacity of their rooftop systems to choose from the Council’s Approved Solar Retailers — who have committed to excellence in customer service and a minimum five-year whole-of-system warranty — and to make sure that they use an installer accredited by the CEC.

Existing solar PV owners are advised to have their system serviced every two years by an accredited professional — to ensure they’re getting the best output and performance possible, and ensure ongoing safety of system components.

More than 2 million Australian homes have now installed rooftop solar PV systems, “and the majority of these systems are performing well and up to expectations,” said Thornton.

Natalie Filatoff