Australia’s ‘unsafe’ solar installation standards under fire


From pv magazine Australia

More than 2.68 million rooftop solar PV systems have now been installed in Australia. But REA Global Director Michael Mrowka has declared that changes to national installation standards are urgently needed in order to defuse a “ticking time-bomb” created by unsafe and poorly designed solar installations.

Mrowka said rooftop solar safety standards, particularly those relating to the controversial DC isolators that were mandated in Australia in 2012, have not kept pace with technology and industry changes.

“One example is the AS/NZS 5033 standard that mandates rooftop solar isolators, which have become the largest single cause of solar fires in recent years,” he said. “Combine that with low-cost Chinese products that can be quite dangerous as they age, especially when poorly installed, and you have a ticking time-bomb that can cause electrical shorts and fires.”

Standards Australia has launched a review of AS/NZS 5033. The draft standard has received more than 680 submissions during the public comments stage, which closed last month.

Mrowka told pv magazine that an update on the installation and safety requirements standard is expected in December. But he is far from confident it will deliver the changes the industry is seeking.

“The safety issue is very difficult because governments have given out so many rebates for what may be potential fire hazards that this could be another pink batts installation debacle,” he said, referring to a government-funded insulation scheme that was abandoned in 2010, following the death of four workers and a string of house fires.

Founded in 2006, REA Global designs and installs solar PV energy generation and storage systems for residential and commercial customers. It installs an estimated 15,000 modules per year. The Brisbane-based company also designs and manufactures solar modules and is progressing plans to establish offices in New South Wales and Victoria.

“We’ve been part of the industry for 14 years and 10 years of that as an EPC company designing, installing and maintaining solar systems,” Mrowka said. “We’ve seen a lot of industry changes and one of the biggest issues in the industry is the application of the current technology which is critical. We’ve got a fundamental flaw where higher voltage systems are being installed with DC rooftop isolators that are not fit for purpose.”

Data provided by the Clean Energy Regulator (CER) shows that more than one in four Australian homes have rooftop solar modules. The market is now on track to eclipse all previous records in 2021. However, that uptake has delivered unintended consequences, with Fire and Rescue NSW statistics showing that PV-related fires have increased fivefold over the past five years.

Isolation switches have been blamed for causing almost half of solar module fires. Mrowka is one of many in the industry who is lobbying against their mandated installation, declaring that the safety mechanism has caused more harm than good.

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“They’re not designed to be sitting on people’s roofs,” he said. “If we could change one thing to improve this situation, it would be to mandate rapid shutdown and panel-level monitoring and communication.”

The United States is among nations that are pursuing rapid shutdown capabilities for rooftop solar. Mrowka said it is something that also needs to happen in Australia to avoid the situation in the United States, where some first responders won’t respond to fires at homes with solar on the roof until after dark.

“They understand the risks and they’re not putting themselves at risk, to the detriment of the homeowner whose house is burning down,” he said.

Mrowka said the simple solution is to install a micro-inverter system that does not use high voltage DC. He noted that REA Solar exclusively uses technology manufactured by California-based Enphase, which has rapid shutdown capabilities built in.

“The problem with current solar systems is that when you pull the fuse in the street or you cut power to home, energy flowing from the solar system to the inverter is still live and can’t be circuit-protected,” he said. “We install our solar panels with Enphase micro-inverters which let us circuit-protect the system because it runs 240 volts alternating current from the panels, so the homeowner can shut them down, just as with lights and power in the home.”

Mrowka said it is also important that the industry addresses the lack of education and information provided to consumers regarding the costs associated with micro-inverters and DC isolators, which require ongoing maintenance.

“It’s not us versus them, of AC versus DC, it’s an education thing. If you get a DC system, we’re not saying the thing will catch on fire, we’re just saying that if it’s not maintained, over time you’re at a greater threat of it catching on fire. If you maintain the system, there shouldn’t be a problem but because companies are selling low-cost systems, they’re not providing that awareness to customers that there are maintenance costs involved,” he said. “They’re not telling them the rooftop isolators need to be maintained each year. They are failing to educate the customers. They either don’t understand it themselves or they don’t want to disclose it to the customer for fear of losing a sale. It’s really frustrating the lack of education that’s being provided in the industry.”

In addition to its rooftop solar focus, REA Global is also pursuing projects in the electric vehicle space. Mrowka recently took delivery of a new Porsche Taycan, for example. As an experienced driver, he said he plans to race the car, which will be powered entirely by solar.

“It can do a quarter mile in 10 seconds,” he said. “It blows everything away. We plan to do some promotional events and racing to raise general awareness that the future of motorsport will be green and electric.”

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