The RET threat to solar's good safety record

Quality and safety standards for rooftop solar are required under the Renewable Energy Target, and have helped build a sophisticated industry. But the RET review could strip away these requirements.

Anticipated changes to the Renewable Energy Target could remove critical safety protections designed to safeguard consumers seeking to reduce their emissions by installing rooftop solar panels on their home.

Both the federal government and the renewables industry are anxiously awaiting the outcomes of the Dick Warburton-led RET Review, due to report at the end of this month. Early comments from the government suggests there is a high likelihood the part of the RET that provides a financial incentive to install residential rooftop systems could be significantly changed, if not completely abolished.

Aside from bringing an end to financial support, if the Small-scale Renewable Energy Scheme is ceased a wide range of consumer protections – including the use of accredited installers, strict product standards and a proactive inspection scheme – are at risk of disappearing completely.

With an aim of preventing the problems of the Home Insulation Program being repeated within the rooftop solar industry, a range of safety measures were added to the SRES under the Rudd-Gillard Governments to provide additional safety protections to consumers.

Under the SRES, safety requirements mandate the engagement of Clean Energy Council accredited system designers and installers, and the use of solar panels and inverters that have satisfied relevant Australian and International standards, when installing a system.

If these requirements were not met, a customer would not be eligible to receive Small-scale Technology Certificates, usually worth thousands of dollars, and generally used to offset the cost of installing a system. There is both a safety and financial imperative created under the SRES to ensure a rooftop system is installed safely.

Receiving accreditation as an installer with the Clean Energy Council requires the completion of a range of additional education and training specifically relating to the proper installation of rooftop PV systems, in addition to holding an unrestricted electrical license. To maintain accreditation, installers must also complete ongoing training as continuous professional development.

In introducing these measures, the government has been largely successful in maintaining a strong safety record for the sector. This may be at risk if the SRES comes to an end.

In its submission to the current RET Review, the Clean Energy Council, who oversees a large portion of the safety regime, stated:

“Vulnerable consumers would be particularly exposed without the consumer protection afforded by SRES and the inspection and accreditation schemes associated with it."

Arguably the most important part of the safety requirements instilled under the SRES is the proactive inspection program conducted by the Clean Energy Regulator.

As the administrators of the Renewable Energy Target, legislation requires that the Clean Energy Regulator inspect a “statistically significant selection of small generation units” to ensure compliance with specified safety standards.

To date, the Clean Energy Regulator has inspected around 10,500 rooftop PV systems, identifying around 400 systems that were deemed to be unsafe and a further 1470 systems deemed sub-standard. Inspectors either shutdown these systems, addressed the safety issue directly, or provided notification to the original installers that they are required to rectify any outstanding safety issues.

This inspection program would also likely come to an end if the SRES were to be repealed.

Major safety issues resulting from the installation of solar panels have so far been rare in Australia. This is largely owing to the proactive protections implemented by both the Clean Energy Regulator and the Clean Energy Council and their willingness to act quickly whenever a potential risk is identified.

The Renewable Energy Target has supported billions of dollars of investment in rooftop solar, with now over 1.2 million systems having been installed over the last five years. Arguably, however, its most important contribution has been its ability to take what was once a cottage industry and encourage its evolution into one that is safer, more sophisticated and offering customers products of higher quality.

Both the government, and the expert panel currently leading the RET Review, need to clarify how it intends to address this potential safety shortfall if it does ultimately decide that either the Renewable Energy Target, or its small-scale component, are to be abolished.

Michael Mazengarb has worked as an analyst for the Australian government and non-for-profit organisations on climate and energy policy. He currently is completing a Master of Climate Change at the Australian National University.

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