The Queensland state government has called for an “urgent industry roundtable” meeting on safety in solar farms, after its latest efforts to introduce controversial new panel installation rules was stymied in the state’s Court of Appeal.
In a statement issued late on Tuesday, Queensland’s minister for industrial relations, Grace Grace, said she had asked the state’s Electrical Safety Commissioner to convene the meeting – something the solar industry has been begging for since the rule change was first flagged.
Rather, it has taken a coordinated industry backlash and finally a high-level court battle to get to this point; although the government is showing no signs of conceding that its ill-fated rule change – requiring only licensed electricians to mount and fix solar panels – was poorly thought out.
As we reported on Tuesday, the state government failed in its bid to overturn the May 29 Supreme Court ruling that invalidated new large-scale solar safety regulations rushed into effect in mid-May.
Queensland’s Court of Appeal on Tuesday morning upheld that decision, which had found in favour of the developers of the 35MW Brigalow solar farm, who had argued the rule would add $2.6 million to the costs of the project, which is already under construction in the state’s south-east.
The win was welcomed by the owners of Brigalow – the solar arm of the heavy hitting renewables fund Impact Investment Group – as well as the Clean Energy Council, who joined others in describing it as a victory for common sense.
In a short statement released following the that from minister Grace, IIG noted the government had “finally done what we said was needed from the start: convene a roundtable to properly consult with the industry.”
That said, there is little in the language of the Queensland government’s response on Tuesday evening that suggests it is willing to rethink its approach to solar safety – and rather, it raises the prospect of legislative changes to the Electrical Safety Act.
“The Palaszczuk government accepts (the) decision of the Court of Appeal but is disappointed by the result,” Grace said.
“Today’s decision is about a technical legal ruling and does not deal with the substantive safety reasoning behind the making of the solar farms regulation.
“My department is currently considering the full extent of the decision, including whether legislative changes are required.
“The Electrical Safety Act has not undergone any significant changes in 17 years. A great deal of technological change and the emergence of new industries have occurred since this time,” she said.
“It is important our safety laws reflect contemporary industry and are able to respond to new and emerging industries, such as large-scale solar farms.”
Minister Grace also outright rejected the many and varied claims from the solar industry that regional jobs were under threat from the solar regulations, as labourers were replaced by outsourced licensed electricians.
“Labourers jobs were never under threat,” she said. “What the regulations did was to provide clarity on the safety standards for electrical work on solar farms to ensure the safety of all workers and the community at large. There were many jobs that labourers could continue to do under the regulations.”
Electrical Safety Commissioner, Greg Skyring – the man charged with convening the urgent industry roundtable – also expressed disappointment and concern over the Court of Appeal decision.
“The solar farm regulations provided clarity and guidance for the industry and it is great shame it has been knocked out by a technicality – the safety risks remain despite today’s decision,” he said.
“During the stakeholder consultations I was very concerned to hear that unlicensed workers were commonly ‘creeping’ into the territory of performing electrical work, such as the earthing of installations, cabling and removal of connected panels.
“I continue to support the government in their efforts to ensure this industry and the jobs it creates can grow but not at the cost of safety.”