Written by Sophie Vorrath / RenewEconomy / 10 April 2019

The Queensland government has confirmed plans to put in place controversial new regulations for solar farm construction in the state that will restrict the installation or removal of PV panels to licensed electricians.

In a media statement dispatched late on Tuesday afternoon, Queensland’s minister for industrial relations, Grace Grace, said the new code of practice  would allow only licensed electricians to mount, locate, fix or remove solar panels on projects of 100kW and above would become law on May 13.

The new rule, which came to RenewEconomy’s attention on Monday, has been slammed by industry groups as excessive, unnecessary, and potentially devastating to developers, due to the “large and sharp increase” in electricians that would be required for solar farm construction.

One solar developer told RE that is was “akin to requiring an electrician to come and plug in your kettle every time you want to make a cup of tea.”

And in a statement on Wednesday, the Clean Energy Council formalised its objections to the rule change, arguing it would will cost local jobs and slow the rollout of large-scale solar in Australia’s Sunshine State, which has a huge pipeline of more than 20GW of large scale solar projects waiting for development.

Numerous solar developers and contractors were stunned by the news broken by RenewEconomy, and asked to see details of the proposed legislation. “Were very unhappy,” one said.

CEC director of energy generation, Anna Freeman, expressed her organisation’s astonishment at the new rules, and even made her own household appliance comparison.

“It’s the equivalent of a homeowner 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,” she said.

“The government has not demonstrated why this new regulation – which risks hundreds of local jobs and could bring some projects to a standstill – is even necessary.”

In her statement, Minister Grace said the new rule had come in response to stakeholder concerns that unlicensed workers, including backpackers and labourers, were mounting and removing “live” solar panels.

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

“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.”

But solar developers have described this rationale as “daft” and said there was no electrical work involved in mounting and demounting panels, an argument reiterated by the CEC.

“There is zero electrical work involved in this task and as such there is no need to require an electrician to do it,” said 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.”

In turn, the Electrical Trades Union, has slammed the CEC’s response to the rule change as “hysterical” and “misleading,” while at the same time comparing current working conditions on solar farms to the Wild West.

“For the CEC to talk about projects coming to a grinding halt is not helpful and does little to improve perceptions that the CEC and major players in the solar industry put profits before people,” said ETU Queensland State Secretary Peter Ong.

“We the ETU have been on the front foot raising the issues about the dangers of using unlicensed workers such as backpackers and other unskilled workers on these farms.

“It was literally like the wild west where workers were picked up from backpackers and driven to the sites similar to a mango or banana farm, it was an accident waiting to happen,” he said.

Ong also warned that a failure to tighten safety standards in this way could lead to industry fall-out similar to the high-profile collapse of RCR Tomlinson who – he said – “were trapped in a race to the bottom on costs.”

But solar insiders argue that the rule change is more likely to make matters worse in an industry already facing problems of grid congestion, network connection delays, the reduction and variations in marginal loss factors, and lack of policy certainty.

“(This rule) 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,” said CEC’s Freeman.

“The process followed has been rushed and poorly communicated and 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,” she said.

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