Queensland government to appeal solar farms ruling

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The Queensland government will appeal against a court decision to invalidate solar installation regulations requiring licensed electrical workers to mount and fix unplugged solar panels. It will also apply for a stay of the decision pending the outcome of the appeal, so that while the technical legal matters are resolved, the measures are maintained.

Following legal action filed by a solar farm developer, the Supreme Court of Queensland ruled on Wednesday the new solar installation regulation introduced by the Queensland government was invalid. The rules, which came into force on May 13, required mounting, locating, fixing and removal of PV panels at solar farms larger than 100 kW to only be undertaken by licensed electricians.

“My department and their legal advisors have reviewed the written judgement overnight and advised me that there are solid grounds for appealing the decision,” Queensland’s Industrial Relations Minister Grace Grace said in a statement.

Minister Grace said the appeal is based on legal technicalities and has nothing to do with the safety argument. She said the regulations were developed following advice from Crown Law and drafted by the Office of Queensland Parliamentary Counsel, which was the general process for the introduction of all regulations.

“When it comes to electrical safety there are no second chances. The safety of workers in this industry was the government’s motivation for developing these regulations and remains our motivation for appealing yesterday’s decision,” Grace said.

Electrical Safety Commissioner Greg Skyring has welcomed the government’s decision to appeal the ruling, adding that he remains concerned about the safety risks workers installing solar panels at large-scale solar farms face, such as electrical shock and fire. “Contrary to some of the commentary I’ve seen in the media, these risks are very real and very serious and they need to be addressed,” he said.

The Queensland arm of the Electrical Trade Union echoed Skyring’s view and signaled “the Union’s intention to continue the fight for proper safety regimes to protect workers”. “As a union we have worked tirelessly to expose the widespread unsafe practices on solar farms, while this decision is a kick in the guts for safety and for quality regional jobs, it will not end the battle,” ETU State Secretary Peter Ong said.

“What we have witnessed by this decision is multi-national companies who have a history of exploitation and a flagrant disregard for safety aided and abetted by Master Electricians Australia and the Clean Energy Council exploiting a loophole in the Electrical Safety Act to win a decision that puts developer profit before the safety of workers. However, the industry is on notice, they will be held accountable, we will never take a backward step on safety,” he said.

Meanwhile, Master Electricians Australia (MEA) welcomed the Queensland Supreme Court ruling and called on Minister Grace to restart the process via consultation with industry. “This ruling clearly demonstrates the need for the Minister to conduct fresh and proper consultation with the industry and we urge her to begin this process immediately,” MEA Chief Executive Officer Malcolm Richards said.

“It is utterly ridiculous that only a qualified electrician should be allowed to lift a solar panel and not a trade assistant,” Richards said, adding that an easy solution is to simply classify a solar panel as a piece of electrical equipment. “The only way to come up with effective regulation that enhances safety while not driving the cost of business through the roof, is to engage with the electrical industry.”

The Clean Energy Council is also hoping for fresh consultations. Noting that the solar industry recognises that safety is paramount, Anna Freeman, the CEC’s Director of Energy Generation, said that mounting and fixing unconnected solar panels to a rail is mechanical work – not electrical work.

“Any future changes should be formulated in consultation with the industry and all relevant stakeholders, and should be based on evidence,” said Freeman. “We look forward to working with the Queensland Government to help achieve our shared aims of safely delivering on its 50% renewable energy target by 2030.

Following little consultation, the Queensland government fast-tracked the new rules mid May. It made the move despite warnings that the now invalid regulation would put hundreds of local jobs at risk and could bring some projects to a standstill. While the state government argued they had struck the right balance between meeting their goal of 50% renewable energy by 2030, and worker and community safety, installers warned the “new safety code” was set to cost jobs, delaying installations and making some projects unviable. It has been suggested the new regulations could push up the cost of commercial and industrial solar systems by some 20%.