Solar industry fears politics driving rooftop inquiry | RenewEconomy

Solar industry fears politics driving rooftop inquiry

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Solar leaders say there is no evidence of systemic safety or quality problems in Australia’s rooftop PV market, after federal govt call for urgent inquiry.

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Australia’s solar industry leaders have again raised concerns that the Abbott government is waging an ideological war on rooftop solar, after federal environment minister Greg Hunt called for an “urgent and immediate” inquiry into the state of the burgeoning market.

Based on a Fairfax Media report titled Solar experts claim multi-billion dollar subsidies wasted on cheap and dodgy panels, published on Sunday, Hunt delivered a letter to both the Clean Energy Council and the Australian Solar Council on Monday, demanding the CEC launch an investigation into the matter this week.

And while the Fairfax article focused the implications of “cheap and dodgy” China-made solar panels flooding the Australian market and perhaps not performing as well as they should, Hunt’s letter had a different focus.

“The poor installation of solar PV or installation of substandard solar PV has the potential to lead to fires with risks to property and human life,” Hunt wrote.

“I’m sure you would agree that it is absolutely imperative that all panels installed must be of high quality and pose absolutely no threat to safety.rsz_rooftop-solar-638x408

“I consider safety to be a matter of paramount importance and I am seeking your assurance of a review of this matter. I ask for an urgent and immediate investigation and preliminary response on safety matters by the end of this week, including outlining what steps you propose to take to rectify the matter.”

But if Hunt is seeking immediate assurance about solar panel safety, he might just as well refer to yesterday’s Senate Environment and Communications Committee, in which his own senior bureaucrats from the Clean Energy Regulator addressed the issue in detail, drawing from the Regulator’s own reports based on the “statistically significant” number of checks they carry out each month.

The Regulator’s Mark Williamson told the Committee that in the long run, since its rooftop solar inspection program had begun, independent contractors had conducted 13,015 inspections, and found a total of 3.9 per cent of systems to be unsafe.

“The vast majority of those unsafe systems related to water ingress into DC isolators, which are essentially switches,” Williamson said. “We don’t see any firm or clear allegations on safety with respect to panels. …In fact, of those 13,000 inspections, we haven’t had one fail as unsafe for reasons of the actual panel itself being unsafe.”

In a statement emailed to RenewEconomy on Tuesday, CEC CEO Kane Thornton also challenged the idea that rooftop solar systems were unsafe.

“The industry strongly rejects any notion of lax safety standards in the sector, including those based on isolated accounts that ignore the industry’s strong track record,” Thornton said.

The Australian solar sector had, he said, “an excellent record of safety and quality, with no evidence of systemic issues relating to the more than 1.3 million systems installed around Australia.

“A comprehensive regime of international product standards, accreditation of qualified electrical installers, and audits and inspections undertaken by state and federal regulatory bodies ensure rigorous standards for the solar sector,” he said.

As for the concern that “cheap dodgy” panels were coming into Australia under the regulatory radar and finding their way onto unsuspecting rooftops, this is genuine  concern – and one that the industry has been facing up to for some time now.

As ASC chief John Grimes put it in an interview with RenewEconomy this morning, “We want a quality long-term solar industry in Australia.” But he is also concerned that the serious issue of “quality” is being used as political fodder.

In an interview with RenewEconomy last May, Grimes freely admitted that, in the not too distant past, there had been a regulatory breach that had concerned industry bodies and market leaders since cheap solar panels started flooding the Australian market.

“Until now, a paper assessment, once every five years, is all that has been done before a particular solar panel can be used in Australia,” Grimes said on the sidelines of the 2014 Solar Conference & Expo.

“There has been no way (until now) for the public to identify genuine quality solar panels,” Grimes said. “Instead, we see disreputable manufacturers ‘gaming the system,’ substituting cheap materials and pricing quality manufacturers out of the market.”

To this end the ASC launched the Positive Quality Program last May, with the support of major market leaders including Yingli, Trina, JA Solar and Solar Juice.

The voluntary program – companies have to opt in to be part of it – sees random audits conducted on solar manufacturers who export their panels to Australia.

The tests – conducted four times every year, with just half an hour’s notice – include audits on all company certifications, a 60 point factory check, detailed random testing of solar panels, and financial verification, to ensure a manufacturer is not on the brink of collapse.

So far, says Grimes, three major players in the Australian household solar market have successfully completed that program.

“(Hunt) has failed to demonstrate that there is a (systemic) problem,” said Grimes, noting that at the Senate Estimates just yesterday, the Clean Energy Regulator had been asked in detail about quality issues,” Grimes said on Tuesday.

“His own senior bureaucrat unequivocally told the Committee yesterday: ‘Problem? What problem’,” said Grimes.

“The reason the government is doing this is that is political,” he said, “we are completely unspurprised. This is cynical, gutter politics.”

Of course, Grimes – who has headed up the decidedly political and fairly successful Save Solar Campaign – has had his share of run-ins with the Abbott government, and Hunt.

In August last year, Hunt called the ASC chief a “total failure of an industry leader” on Brisbane radio, and said he should be “utterly ashamed” of comments he made suggesting the environment minister had been “sidelined” in a government that was firmly anti-renewables.

Grimes later told the ABC Radio presenter that Hunt had warned that there would be consequences if the Save Solar campaign continued.

“Greg Hunt is a man of his word,” Grimes said. “He called me… to warn me off, and to tell me to shut down our pointed marginal seat campaign.

“They are so scared about the voice of Australian people on this subject …they will apply any pressure and destroy any character to stop this movement,” Grimes said.

“Greg Hunt, so under pressure on this issue that he has to attack my personal credibility… that just shows everybody just how far this government has gone and why this campaign is so important.”

Speaking to RenewEconomy on Tuesday, the Clean Energy Council could not say whether or not it would be acting on the orders of Minister Hunt, but a spokesperson did say that the CEC was “in the process of responding to his letter.”

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  1. Rob Campbell 6 years ago

    Thanks to the “Peter Garrett” factor,I’m sure that 99% of all solar equipment is of high quality and definitely this is another political stunt to scare the public. The cheapest modules I have had offered to me come from Shandong in China, they are OEM branded by one of the big Australian players. If there was to be batch of bad panel it may well be expected to materialize in this company, but to my knowledge it has not. Beyond Building did some OEM modules which still are OK, though their OEM inverters failed. Most inverters installed in the first 2-3 years of the Aussie solar roll out have failed. Its the level of service that identifies the shonky brands, as all have tech issues. The only modules that we have had to pull off roofs are the ones that costed the most to put on. These are the Japanese “Quality” modules installed as part of the $9000.00, 1 KW systems that started the whole thing rolling. Water ingress is the common theme. We have seen three modules with arcing damage from poor soldering. That’s It.
    It is nothing but a beat up the coal lobby, who have their hands up the back of the Libs shirts.

    • Edward 6 years ago

      On what planet are you living on Rob. The solar industry is riddled with shonky companies who close their doors when the cheap stuff fails.I think I saw a list with well more than 300 companies on whirlpool . Distributors of the CMS inverters or Eclipse in Queensland went bust recently and now operate under new entities. The industry has no problem taking the money and then complaint when the ones providing the money want some accountability. Just go on whirlpool and read the info .. are they all liberal and coal lobby puppets? threats,

      • Rob Campbell 6 years ago

        Your talking inverters and I agree with you, but give me examples of Solar Modules (only solar modules) because that’s what they are talking about because they are the things that are apparently failing -, which clearly they aren’t. Read the article and my comment again.

        • john 6 years ago

          just remember that the poor members of parliament do not have a clue what a panel is let alone an inverter.

  2. Ian 6 years ago

    SOLAR PANELS ARE A FIRE HAZARD. let’s go back to burning things

  3. ChrisEcoSouth 6 years ago

    The highest percentage failure rates we have experienced in 14 years of solar installations, has been from manufacturers in Japan and USA. I am aware of a very few brands from China that have significant failures. Once again, it is all about who is going to do the right thing when products fail.
    I must stress that (to my impression) the overall industry failure rate (of panels) is absolutely tiny.

    • john 6 years ago

      I agree Chris and good companies replace with out even checking if there is a fault just read my earlier post

  4. John P 6 years ago

    Once Greg Hunt is in on the act, we are entitled to expect a political dimension.
    I am expecting this is another attempt to degrade the SRES to protect Liberal party donors in the electrical industry.
    Technical realities are not relevant.

  5. Keith 6 years ago

    Sad lack of creativity on the part of the LNP. Pink Batts worked a treat, so here we go again trying for a rerun with solar panels.

    A couple of points
    i) The pink batts were not a fiasco. A huge amount of insulation (less power consumption) was installed and the accident rate was no different to the period prior to the pink batts push. The failure was that Labor failed to push back and make clear what happened.
    ii) There is every sign that the Solar industry is more sophisticated and won’t let them get away with another smear and scare campaign.

    If only they could get their heads around the fact that if they support renewables in general and solar in particular, it might repair a little of the damage they have been doing to their standing with the community.

    • John Saint-Smith 6 years ago

      For the Libs to admit that the insulation program actually achieved most of its goals – and would have completed them if it hadn’t been shut down prematurely – would have been to suggest that they were opposed to reducing emissions and electricity costs to the consumer, and that would never do.
      The saddest part of the ‘fiasco’ was the pathetic forelock tugging apology from Rudd trying to disown everything he said was a ‘moral challenge of a generation’ during his first stint at ruining a country. Rudd’s greatest achievement was to mask the ugly truth about Abbott and the coal industry.

    • Chris Fraser 6 years ago

      Wasn’t there more risk of fire from vermin chewing through badly insulated wires ? (Just starting a nasty rumour, of course, like a lot of negators and contrarians on other blogs)

  6. Ken Dyer 6 years ago

    Greg Hunt’s scare mongering is rooted in short term political gains for one simple reason. The solar industry is well established and a whole bureaucratic structure had grown up around the industry before the Abbott Government came on the scene.

    The solar industry is regulated by precisely the type of big-government regulations the Abbott Government hates, and its continuance would bankrupt the Coalition government’s revered libertarian ideologies. Greg Hunt wants to tear down this structure and any trumped up excuse will do.

    We have already seen that the Abbott Government has attempted to dismantle Australia’s approach to implementing renewable energy systems. Its attempt to nobble the Climate Change Authority, an appointed statutory body is one example, just as they tried to nobble the Human Rights Commissioner recently.

    The Climate Change Authority promotes a holistic approach requiring government to adopt overriding regulations to combat climate change. This also explains why the Abbott Government has failed to change or confirm the RET target despite an enquiry which delivered an appropriate response.

    Australia can expect more of the same short term monosyllabic maundering and posturing of the Coalition Government. Whilst Abbott continues to abrogate his national responsibilities in favour of his small government neo-liberal ideology, an ideology that Hunt fervently supports, Australia is suffering now, and will continue to suffer in the future.

  7. Tim 6 years ago

    Does anyone else see a connection with the timing of this and the large energy retaillers entry into the market….

  8. john 6 years ago

    The solar industry is rather like the car industry was in the 1920’s.
    Some will fail some companies will be one man operations and they fail.
    My experience and knowledge told me to deal only with a company that used best practise products.
    Yes I followed the industry from the late 1990’s and purchased the products.
    Case 1 I had a fail on my system I rang the inverter supplier.
    When I rang back to explain that it was a supply HV problem it was too late the inverter was already sent.
    Case 2 I had a earth leak fail due to a rock from a slasher smashing the panel, the panel supplier replaced it at no cost.
    Case 1 There was no need to send a new inverter the HV had been raised which put the LV so close to 255 Volts that the system would not work after about 08:30.
    Case 2 The company did not have to replace the panel due to a rock wrecking the panel however they did.
    Are there dodgy companies out there ?
    Yes I have brought to attention of people a few who are not exactly shall we say being upright in their business practise.
    The real problem with this industry is that most consumers have no idea about the product and absolutely no idea at all about how it actually works, so naturally a few shonky people will try to make a quick buck.
    Having seen the political side of it from statements like this ” solar panels do not work” to “panels will never pay for the cost to buy them” to ” they are a fire hazard”.
    Let me say perhaps the real problem is HUGE lack of knowledge.
    Then again people are buying 4X4’s and living in the suburbs so perhaps a lot of stupid people out there.
    What I mean is people make stupid purchase decisions be it transport or this new product solar
    Frankly most make a bad decision with transport.

  9. Chris Fraser 6 years ago

    Just another desperate and vain throw of the dice, eh Huntie ? Better give your Chinese-made toaster back then … there might be a fire.

  10. Robert Hudson 6 years ago

    They’re getting more entertaining as they get more desperate. One of the themes of the inquiry is that solar panels won’t work. Tell that to the thousands of people who got solar panels last year and have had their bills slashed or are receiving refunds from the energy companies. The Abbott government is way too late and again will make fools out of themselves.

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