• The Government of Queensland in Australia has ordered for a new safety code for commercial solar farms with 100 kW capacity and above to come into effect from May 13, 2019
  • Under the new regulation, licensed electricians will only be allowed to mount, locate, fix or remove solar panels on such farms, instead of unlicensed workers as backpackers or laborers
  • Clean Energy Council says to have licensed electricians do non electrical work of mounting and removing solar panels is a step without clear justification and was taken after negligible consultation with the solar industry
  • The council estimates requirement of around 1,450 electricians at a short notice for more than 3.2 GW of solar farms under construction or financially committed in the state currently
  • Such a step would delay project completion and result in fewer jobs for locals

At the end of December 2018, Australia had 87 large-scale renewable energy projects with 14.5 GW capacity committed, comprising 59 solar projects. Geographically, the state of Queensland accounts for the maximum out of this at 4,941 MW, creating 4,681 jobs, according to an April 2019 Clean Energy Council (CEC) report (see 2018-End: 14.5 GW Australia RE Capacity Committed).

Now Queensland’s government has announced a new safety code that will require solar farms to employ licensed electricians to mount, locate, fix or remove solar panels on solar farms with a total rated capacity of at least 100 kW. This, fears CEC, will cost local jobs and slow the roll-out of large-scale solar in the state.

CEC, which was one of the organizations consulted by the stakeholder steering group formed by the government, said the government’s decision is without clear justification and passed with negligible consultation with the solar industry.

“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,” said CEC’s Director of Energy Generation, Anna Freeman in a very strongly worded opposition. “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.”

The government explained concerns regarding unlicensed workers such as backpackers and laborers mounting and removing live solar panels. This exposes them to risk from electrocution and fires if the panels are not properly earthed during installation.

The code, which will come into effect from May 13, 2019, will only impact commercial solar farms.

Currently, Queensland has more than 3.2 GW of solar farms under construction or financially committed, as per CEC estimates, and would require as many as 1,450 additional electricians at a short notice. Finding licensed electricians in small regional and rural centres, would be a huge task and would therefore delay project completion and result in fewer jobs for locals, according to CEC.

Local media outlet RenewEconomy said this adds to a number of major challenges already dogging big solar developers around the country, including grid congestion problems, network connection delays, the reduction and variations in marginal loss factors, and lack of policy certainty.  

The trigger?

Back in September 2018, an ABC news report claimed companies are turning to cheap labour in terms of backpackers over local workers to work on solar farms as, according to an industry source, local workers have ‘drug and alcohol problems’ and there is a cost involved in having fly in fly out workforce.

Following complaints, the Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk launched an investigation after issuing notices to companies for unlicensed electrical work, failing to provide personal protective equipment for workers and failing to implement safe systems.