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FIGURES released in New South Wales last week confirmed what some have suspected for months – that there are widespread faults in solar panel installations.
In an audit of 658 household solar systems in western Sydney, just one in five was installed correctly, and about 18.5 per cent had ”major” defects posing safety risks.
Most of the serious problems involve the incorrect wiring of a DC circuit breaker, an error that does not affect the running of the unit but that does pose a risk of fire. Regulators insist it is a very low risk.
Almost immediately there were claims that the federal government – whose solar panel rebates helped start a nationwide rush for the roof-top systems – has kept the problem quiet to avoid the sort of bad publicity that was sparked by the home insulation and Green Loans schemes. ”They have tried to keep this away from the public as much as possible, that’s clear,” said one solar panel industry operator.
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”They didn’t want it to be seen as another home insulation debacle.”
The federal government, through the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, last week denied that it had tried to avoid releasing information to the public.
It said solar panel safety was the responsibility of state and territory governments.
But it is true that the agency contracted by the federal government to accredit solar panel installers – the Clean Energy Council – has known about the extent of the problems since October last year, alerted by the Department of Climate Change.
Kane Thornton, director of strategy at the Clean Energy Council, said the council made ”no secret” ofÂ the issue, and was trying to fix the problems.But it did not want to widely publicise the extent of the defects because, Mr Thornton said, it did not want to cause unnecessary alarm.
Householders could not fix the faults themselves, he said, and the council feared that alerting the public could result in some people trying to interfere with, or switch off, their systems.
This would be a problem, because the safety risk with the circuit breaker was triggered only when the solar panel was switched off.
The Clean Energy Council said for a spark to form, it would need to be a sunny day, pushing the panels towards full capacity. The panels would then need to be ”shut down in an incorrect manner”.
”Our concern was that there was a greater risk in alerting people to a potential issue that they couldn’t do anything to solve themselves, but could increase the risk if they become alarmed about it,” Mr Thornton said.
But the federal opposition, as well as some in the solar industry, suspect there is more to it than that.
Last week the opposition’s environment spokesman, Greg Hunt, suggested that a national audit had uncovered similar results to the NSW audit, and that the federal government was ”sitting on” the figures.
The Department of Climate Change conducted a ”random and targeted sample of inspections” nationwide from last October to June 30.
It denies that it tried to keep the information secret, saying it referred any problems to the householder, the state or territory authority and the Clean Energy Council.
But it did not answer questions fromÂ The AgeÂ about the results of the inspections, and whether they revealed a similar number of defects to those uncovered in the NSW audit.
Meanwhile, another federal agency – the Office of the Renewable Energy Regulator – kicked off its own round of national inspections in mid-May.
It said these had not been running long enough to generate any data.
But it said it had received ”preliminary information” about certain issues, including incorrectly wired DC circuit breakers.
In Victoria, the state government agency responsible for policing solar panel safety insists that the extent of faults uncovered in NSW has not happened there.
”Victoria has the most rigorous safety regime for home solar systems in Australia, and has not experienced the problems reported in other states,” a spokeswoman for Energy Safety Victoria said.
An Energy Safety audit of 81 Victorian homes last year found that nine had the serious defect.
These were fixed, and installers and inspectors were alerted to the problem and the need to go back and fix any incorrect installations.
Since then, Energy Safety said it had run a series of inspections and found no more of the faults.
”We are very confident this is not an ongoing issue,” a spokeswoman said.
The Clean Energy Council said there were now 300,000 solar panel installations nationwide.
More than 130,000 solar panel systems were installed under the Solar Homes and Communities Plan – a Howard government scheme that was beefed up with generous rebates after Labor was elected in 2007.
It was then dramatically axed in the middle of 2009 after cost overruns of $850 million.
Demand surged again when state governments brought in feed-in tariff programs for household solar systems. Several of these have since been scaled back. According to the Australian PV Association, federal, state and territory governments spent $641.3 million on the solar panel industry in 2010 – 78 per cent of it on ”market stimulation”.
Last year, 383 megawatts of photovoltaic power was installed in Australia – a 480 per cent jump on 2009. Little wonder there have been concerns raised about the quality of installations in a market that has run hot.
But even within the industry, opinion is mixed about just how big a deal the faulty solar panel installations actually are. The risk of fire from a faulty breaker is, by all accounts, very small.
The council said there had been just ”three minor incidents” reported nation-wide, and no actual house fires. But as the body representing electrical contractors, the National Electrical and Communications Association, said: ”There is going to be a significant amount of rectification work required.”
There has been no shortage of audits and inspections of household solar panel installations.
The states have done their own work, the federal Department of Climate Change has carried out its inspections, and the inspections by the Renewable Energy Regulator are under way. But it remains impossible to get a clear picture of the extent of problems nationwide.
The Office of the Renewable Energy Regulator said it intended to make ”general information” about its inspections public, but it is not clear whether this will include any information about safety defects.
Given the results of the NSW audit, the continuing speculation about the extent of the problems and the massive investment by taxpayers, a bit of openness and transparency – or as some call it, sunlight – does not seem too much to ask.
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