CEC criticises new Qld solar farm regulation

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A new code of practice and electrical safety regulations will be put in place next month in Queensland in what the government says are measures to enhance safety in the growing commercial solar farm industry.

The new regulations mean only licensed electricians can mount, locate, fix or remove solar panels on solar farms with a total rated capacity of at least 100kW, a move the Electrical Trades Union is welcoming.

The Clean Energy Council on the other hand says the regulations will cost local jobs and slow the rollout of large-scale solar.

“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,” Clean Energy Council’s director of energy generation, Anna Freeman said.

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

“Our industry recognises the need to put safety first in everything that we do. Were there a genuine electrical safety risk presented by someone bolting an unconnected solar panel to a frame, we would be a very willing partner in implementing changes to protect the safety of workers.

“However, 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.”

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ETU Queensland state secretary Peter Ong said the ETU has 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,” Mr Ong said.

“Safety audit after safety audit revealed unreasonable risks including faulty installations being performed by unlicensed workers, in some cases these installations were putting the workers themselves and the public at risk as well as requiring re working and in some cases complete re-installation.”

Industrial Relations Minister Grace Grace said the Construction and operation of solar farms Code of Practice 2019 and the Electrical Safety (Solar Farms) Amendment Regulation 2019 would become law on May 13 and cover all Queensland solar farms.

“The Palaszczuk Government is committed to achieving 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030,” Ms Grace said.

“As a result, we’ve seen unprecedented growth in the number of commercial solar farms in Queensland and that means jobs for installers.

“These new regulations are all about ensuring we keep pace with new and emerging technologies and keep workers safe.

“But to ensure the safety of these workers, our regulations need to keep pace with these ever-changing technologies. 

Ms Grace said stakeholders were concerned about unlicensed workers such as backpackers and labourers mounting and removing live solar panels.

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“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.

“Introducing the new regulation achieves the right balance between our renewable energy target and ensuring worker and community safety,” Ms Grace said.  

Master Electricians chief executive officer Malcolm Richards also welcomed the changes.

“The new Solar Farm Code of Practice and regulations ensure Queensland keeps pace with the fast-moving renewable energy industry. We welcome these changes which will ensure safety for workers, consumers and the energy industry,” Mr Richards said.