Australia: FIT changes may lead to dangerous installations

Rapid changes to the New South Wales (NSW) government’s feed-in tariff (FIT) regime can create a boom-and-bust cycle where faulty installations are more common, said the Australian consumer protection body Choice in a statement late last month. The consumer group believes that when FIT regimes are quickly wound back or suspended with little notice, then "unscrupulous operators" can move in, exposing households to avoidable risks.

In April, the newly elected NSW government suspended the state’s Solar Bonus FIT scheme one month after taking office. Claiming rapidly growing costs the government suspended the scheme and reduced FIT rates by two-thirds.

The debate over the state government’s suspension of its FIT scheme and subsequent safety inspection campaign has taken another direction with consumer group Choice’s entry into the debate. They argue that consumers are vulnerable because of a boom-bust-cycle created as people rush to get install solar panels before incentives end. "Competition amongst solar panel installers is tight, because the profit margins for labor and components in this industry are small," said Choice spokesperson Ingrid Just in a statement.

Choice has performed some research into installations and found, “evidence of widespread problems with solar panel installation, including the use of incorrect wiring and circuit breakers which may lead to potential fire risks,” the statement reads. Choice advises consumers to beware of very cheap quotes and short warrantee periods for workmanship and materials.

The NSW Department of Fair Trading has launched an inspection scheme of solar installations in Sydney after its own earlier audit of a small number of homes found faults. A department spokesperson told pv magazine that investigators found instances where the, "polarized DC circuit breakers have been incorrectly wired." The spokesperson continued, "if the circuit breaker is operated (opened), this could lead to sustained electrical arcing and, in a worst case scenario, could cause a fire in the circuit breaker."

The solar industry was quick to defend the safety of photovoltaic modules and Muriel Watt from IT Power told pv magazine, “it is easy to avoid potential problems by using approved products, including correct wiring and fuses.” She continued, “Australia has world leading PV module and system standards, which must also be followed. There are rigorous world standards and testing regimes for modules.”