Solar developers have slammed Queensland government plans to tighten regulations around panel installation large PV projects as a “cheap shot” at the stunning growth of the big solar sector in the state, and say it will make many commercial installations unfeasible.
The Labor Palaszczuk government confirmed on Tuesday that a new rule allowing only licensed electricians to mount, locate, fix or remove solar panels on projects of 100kW and above would become law in the state on May 13.
Queensland’s minister for industry, Grace Grace, said the rule change, which has been endorsed by the state’s Electrical Trades Union, had been fast-tracked to address concerns about unlicensed workers, including backpackers and labourers, endangering themselves and others.
“Solar panels generate power as soon as they are exposed to light and cannot be isolated while they are being mounted,” she said.
“Workers are at risk from electrocution and fires if solar panels are not properly earthed during installation.
“Removing panels can be even more dangerous. These are not jobs for unlicensed workers.”
But the solar industry is not having a bar of it, and says these claims amount to a trumped up and poorly thought out attack on the solar industry in Queensland, where there is a huge pipeline of more than 20GW of large scale projects awaiting development.
“This just smells and feels like a cheap shot at large-scale solar and a sleight of hand way to control it,” said Danin Kahn, the CEO of Todae Solar.
Todae, which has been a major player in Australia’s booming commercial solar market, worked on the massive 3.2MW rooftop array installed at the processing plant of Primo Smallgoods in the Brisbane suburb of Wacol.
That installation – one of the biggest of its kind in Australia – covers around 75 per cent of the Primo factory’s 25,000 square metre roof, and will cut the facility’s grid power consumption by 19 per cent.
Last year, Todae noted that the 9,700 panels system was completed in less than five months after it was announced.
But Kahn says that under the new rule, jobs like this – which employed around 30 unlicensed workers – would not get past the drawing board.
“The Primo project came about through an Australian manufacturer that suffered from high electricity prices,” Kahn told One Step.
“We (Todae, in partnership with SolarChoice and CleanPeak Energy) found a solution to significantly reduce that, and were able to… (help) that business remain both environmentally and economically sustainable.
“Under this new rule, a project like that would be rendered unfeasible.”
Huon Hoogesteger, the founder and CEO of Smart Commercial Solar agrees.
“This move is not about safety,” he told One Step. “This is about slowing down solar to the benefit of other industries.”
“The idea that lifting things into place is an electrician’s job, is absurd,” he added.
Of the minister’s comments about solar panels becoming “live” under sunlight, Hoogesteger says this is technically correct, but emphasises that they are live at “very low voltage” – little more than a car battery – and are safe because of the type of connector that eliminates any conductors from human touch.
“Only once they are connected together in long strings and cabling is ready for connection to terminals is when the work is technically (already) meant to be done by electricians,” he said.
Kahn says that of the hundreds of gigawatts of large-scale solar being installed around the world, he has never heard of any electrocution injuries that have occurred through the mounting of solar panels.
And for that to happen – given the panel design – would be almost physically impossible, “even if you were a dare devil and wanted to give it a try,” he said.
“It’s very interesting where the arbitrary figure of 100kW came from. It will have a significant impact on jobs and local business.
“Commercial installations are already very carefully governed by safety rules and regulations.
“It will just significantly increase the cost, significantly increase the process – and even if you could afford all of that, there just wouldn’t be enough capability.
“It’s like saying that when we build a house we need licensed electricians to even lay the bricks.
“There wasn’t proper consultation carried out in this process. This is just a cheap way of curtailing growth of large-scale solar.”
Jack Hooper, whose large commercial solar business GEM Energy operates almost exclusively in Queensland, said he understood the concerns around safety, but the government’s “knee-jerk reaction” to those concerns made no sense.
“I’ve seen some ridiculous things, and this is up there,” he told RE.
“There’s been a lack of consultation, particularly with guys like us that are on the ground.
“Ruling a line in the sand between small-scale and large-scale based on the cut-off for the large-scale rebate scheme is crazy.
“It means that you don’t need to be an electrician to mount a solar panel to the roof on a 99.9kW job, but you do for a 100kW job, even though the risk profile is the same. And even though, the reality is, installing a solar panel is not electrical work. … It’s outrageous.”
And for his company, Hooper told RE, the implications are dramatic.
“We have done some maths. On a 200kW job, we might have a team of five people or six people, of which there’d be two electricians – or 30 per cent. The rest would be apprentices and TAs (trade assistants).
“With this rule, we would need to change this mix to 80 per cent electricians. In doing so, this would not only raise the cost of the project, but it would make it take a lot longer.
“And while it would remove the opportunities for apprentices and TAs, …there would be a shortage of skilled electricians to do the work.
“What they’ve done is given us four weeks notice to change the entire makeup base of our workforce.
“Under constriction we’ve currently got a 1.3MW project, a 790kW project, a 1.1MW project, a 911kW project and a 500kW project that will all come to a grinding halt because we’re not going to be able resource to deliver these projects,” Hooper said.
“They should have consulted people on the front line that are installing and developing these projects, like ours.
“They should have gone to industry and had a review period of six months. They should offer courses for TAs and apprentices on the safe handling of panels.
“Instead, it’s a knee-jerk reaction to the wrongdoings of a handful of companies.
“And the implications are dramatic. We’re looking at a 10-15 per cent increase to the capex cost of projects, and we then also don’t have the labour force to deliver them.”