Solar regulations: promoting safety or rushed and unjustified?

Friday, 12 April, 2019

Solar regulations: promoting safety or rushed and unjustified?

New electrical safety regulations set to come into effect on 13 May will require licensed electricians to mount, locate, fix or remove solar panels on solar farms. While the Queensland Government said these regulations, alongside a new code of practice, will help enhance safety, the Clean Energy Council (CEC) has warned they may negatively impact the progression of solar projects.

Over the last six months, more than 200 audits at solar farms across the state have revealed breaches of work health and safety and electrical safety laws, including unlicensed electrical work and non-compliant electrical installations.

The Construction and operation of solar farms Code of Practice 2019 and the Electrical Safety (Solar Farms) Amendment Regulation 2019 were developed to address concerns about unlicensed workers such as labourers mounting and removing live solar panels.

The code of practice provides guidance to ensure safety at solar farms throughout their life cycle, including design, construction, operation and maintenance, and de-commissioning. It consolidates existing electrical and work health and safety requirements for solar farms, including information on what constitutes electrical work and how designers, constructors and operators can comply with their existing safety duties. The regulations apply to all solar farms with a total rated capacity of at least 100 kW, but do not affect residential solar installations or other renewable technologies.

Industrial Relations Minister Grace Grace said, “These new regulations are all about ensuring we keep pace with new and emerging technologies and keep workers safe.

“Solar panels generate power as soon as they are exposed to light and cannot be isolated while they are being mounted.

“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.”

The CEC disagrees, stating these regulations were introduced without clear justification, and they address simple tasks that do not involve electrical work, such as bolting an unconnected solar panel to a frame.

“It’s the equivalent of a home owner having to call an electrician as soon as they’ve unpacked a new television from the box, in order to hang it on the wall,” said CEC’s Director of Energy Generation Anna Freeman. “The existing regulations already ensure that an electrician carries out the electrical cabling and earth testing, which is the next step in the construction process.”

Even with these changes, the government insists Queensland is still on track to achieve its target of 50% renewable energy by 2030. Minister for Natural Resources, Mines and Energy Anthony Lynham said, “We already have more than $5bn in operational, committed or underway projects, creating more than 4600 jobs.”

However, the CEC expressed concerns that the regulations will cost local jobs and slow the rollout of large-scale solar.

“We estimate that a 100-megawatt solar farm may need to engage an additional 45 electricians to build a project. We currently have over 3200 megawatts of solar farms under construction or financially committed, which could mean as many as 1450 additional electricians needed at short notice,” Freeman said. “It’s unlikely that such large numbers of sparkies will be found in the small regional and rural centres where these projects are usually located. So, it will result in fewer jobs for locals on new clean energy projects, more fly-in, fly-out workers and increased pressure on the availability of electricians throughout Queensland.”

Although the government said the regulations were welcomed by organisations such as Master Electricians, the National Electrical and Communications Association and the Electrical Safety Commissioner, the CEC criticised the rushed and “negligible” consultation process.

Freeman said it “should have progressed through a proper regulatory impact assessment process, as per the government’s own guidelines for regulatory change”.

“Other solutions which should have been considered include a system where a single licensed electrician supervises a team of workers, which is the case in the rooftop solar industry.

“We urge the Queensland Government to rethink this rushed requirement before inflicting significant and unnecessary damage on the large-scale solar industry and the thousands of regional workers whose livelihoods depend on this growing industry.”

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Image credit: ©Alfi/Dollar Photo Club

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