Rooftop solar boom sees jump in sub-standard and “unsafe” systems

Australia’s ongoing rooftop solar boom has been accompanied by a small rise in the number of PV installations found to be “sub-standard” or “unsafe” by Clean Energy Regulator inspections, new data has shown.

In a year where small-scale solar installations – 1-100kW – grew by 37 per cent, adding a nationwide total of 1.5GW, 80 out of 3678 rooftop systems inspected by the CER were found to be unsafe – a rate of 2.2 per cent, up slightly from 1.9 per cent in 2017.

The number of systems found to have committed the slightly lesser transgression of being “sub-standard” also increased just slightly, to 748 (of the 3678 systems inspected), or 20.3 per cent, compared to 17.7 per cent at the end of July 2018.

Exactly what these two categorisations mean – sub-standard and unsafe – is important to clarify, and headlines like that in The Australian last week, declaring one in five solar units in Australia to be “defective,” are not entirely helpful.

According to the CER, systems are deemed unsafe due to issues such as water ingress into electrical components, and identification of products subject to recalls, which result in the system being switched off and reported, with immediate action required.

Systems deemed to be “sub-standard” are not necessarily defective, but are defined by the CER as not meeting key standards and requirements for installation that “may lead” to premature equipment failure or other issues.

These systems are not considered to pose an imminent safety risk, but are recommended to be improved to meet relevant standards and industry guidelines. They are also reported to the relevant authorities.

As the CER notes here, the inspection standards it uses are “very high” and the inspections are thorough.

“A substandard rating does not mean the whole system is substandard. Typically, such a rating is because one or two relatively minor defects are found in the installation that does not affect performance.

“There is often a spike in sub–standard inspection findings following the release of updated standards. For example, the new standard could require that a heavy duty conduit is used instead of a standard duty conduit.”

That said, the safety and quality of rooftop solar installations in Australia is a highly important issue, for both industry and consumers.

For consumers, the increased incidence of both unsafe and sub-standard solar systems – while at half the rate of growth for installations in 2018-19 – serves as a fresh warning that rooftop PV should be carefully considered, from the credentials of the hardware to those of the installer.

As you can see in the table above, the incidence of unsafe systems has remained pretty consistent over the period since 2011, when the Regulator started its process of random inspections of installed systems.

Still, the 2018-19 year is has seen the first rise in numbers reported since 2015-16. And with a number of existing and new state government subsidies in place around the country, it’s a good time for both industry and consumers to take stock.

“We continue to see growth in rooftop photovoltaic for households and businesses, even as the level of the support from subsidies under the Small-Scale Renewable Energy Scheme gradually decreases between now and when the scheme ends in 2030,” Clean Energy Regulator chairman David Parker said.

Some of the trouble lies with Australia’s hotchpotch of industry guidelines, which can vary from state to state.

In Victoria, the state government has endeavoured to ensure a higher standard of installation from its Solar Homes rooftop rebate by requiring eligible applicants to use Clean Energy Council accredited retailers and installers, and CEC approved products.

As we reported here six months ago – the last time The Australian ran an inflammatory rooftop solar safety headline – the Clean Energy Council often reminds consumers to use its Approved Solar Retailers list as a reference point when investing in PV.

“Approved Solar Retailers have committed to ethical marketing practices, excellence in customer service and a minimum five-year whole of system warranty,” said CEC chief Kane Thornton, at the time.

“Just like servicing your car, we also encourage people to have their solar power system serviced by an accredited professional every couple of years.”

Other recommendations on how to avoid installing faulty PV systems include:

– Don’t go through cold-callers or door-knockers;

– Query advertising claims: if the price seems too good to be true, then it probably is;

– Don’t provide bank details over the phone or at the door;

– Resist pressure tactics: Unscrupulous operators may try to pressure you into buying solar PV panels by claiming rebates are running out or offer a special deal that seems too good to be true;

– Solar PV should hold the appropriate electrical licence for each state and be accredited by the Clean Energy Council (CEC) Solar Accreditation Scheme.

– Installers must demonstrate and adhere to safe working procedures, have a good safety record and comply with occupational health and safety and electrical safety laws.

– Installers need to provide a statement that they have had no prosecutions registered with WorkSafe Victoria in the past three years (or with any equivalent authority in another Australian jurisdiction).

You can also learn more about buying a solar installation in the guides produced by Consumer Affairs Victoria, and the Clean Energy Council.

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