Federal environment minister Greg Hunt has called for an “urgent and immediate” inquiry into the safety and quality of Australia’s rooftop solar market, raising concerns among industry leaders that the Abbott government is unfairly targeting solar energy.
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.
“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 at yesterday’s Senate Environment and Communications Committee, Hunt’s own senior bureaucrats from the Clean Energy Regulator addressed the issue in detail, drawing from their 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.
“The reason the government is doing this is that is political,” he said, “we are completely unspurprised. This is cynical, gutter politics.”
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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