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Dodgy solar panels spark fire concerns -

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Dodgy solar panels spark fire concerns

Broadcast: 17/02/2010

Reporter: Margot O'Neill

Up to 2,000 Australian homes could be at risk of electrical fires from poorly installed roof-top
solar panels.

Transcript

TONY JONES: Lateline can reveal tonight that up to 2,000 homes in Australia could be at risk of
electrical fires from poorly installed roof-top solar panels.

The concerns have led the Clean Energy Council to call for a Federal Government audit and a
beefed-up inspection regime, but currently there are only three dedicated inspectors covering all
of Australia.

Lateline has been told that a sample inspection of rooftop systems late last year found that 3 per
cent could pose a serious fire risk.

Still fighting for his political life after the home insulation scheme was linked to four deaths -
three from electrocution. Environment Minister Peter Garrett is believed to be now considering an
audit of the roof-top solar systems after Government subsidies generated a boom in their
installation.

Margot O'Neill has the story.

MARGOT O'NEILL: This is what can happen when the wrong circuit breaker is plugged into a solar
system.

It was the most commonly-spotted fault during inspections last year which found three per cent of
the 200 systems checked posed a fire risk. One installer was later found to have incorrectly wired
20 separate solar systems this way.

GEOFF STAPLETON, CLEAN ENERGY COUNCIL SOLAR INSTALLATION ACCREDITATION COMMITTEE: What we find is
that people tend to, if they do a mistake on one system, they'll tend to be doing it on all their
systems that they're installing.

MARGOT O'NEILL: While the vast majority of installations, like the one shown here, are done by
properly accredited electricians, industry experts fear some consumers could be exposed to high
voltage fires because of poor quality panels or workmanship as companies rush in to the market to
take advantage of government rebates.

TED SPOONER, AUSTRALIAN STANDARDS, RENEWABLE ENERGY SYSTEMS: They are very different to house
wiring and it does require a level of expertise that's above and beyond our normal electrical
contractors.

MARGOT O'NEILL: Over the last few years, the number of roof-top systems in homes and schools has
jumped from about 10,000 to 66,000 in December and to an estimated 100,000 by June this year.

At the same time, new technology means solar systems can now pack up to 800 volts. When converted,
this can be fed back into the grid. And while some electricity distributers check on solar
connections to the grid, there are only three dedicated national inspectors checking the
installations.

TED SPOONER: There is very, very limited inspection of houses to make sure that they actually meet
those requirements.

MARGOT O'NEILL: But there's currently no inspection to ensure the installed solar panels comply
with international safety standards.

Australia imports all its solar panels, but as of a few months ago, only about half of the world's
manufacturers complied with international standards. And while government rebates depend on the use
of certified panels, Australia does not ban the importation of non-certified panels.

GEOFF STAPLETON: The issue is, like any industry that has grown quickly in the last few years, are
people bringing in modules from overseas that are not on that list and using them on the roof,
gambling that they will not be inspected?

TED SPOONER: Any installer can actually purchase any module from anywhere in the world and bring it
in to Australia and there's no restriction at all on that at the moment.

If you have very poor quality control in modules, you can end up fractures in joints and those
electrical joints can then lead to arcs developing, and then fires.

These fires burn at quite high temperatures.

MARGOT O'NEILL: There have been no known rooftop solar panel fires in Australia, but there have
been some overseas, notably last year at this factory in Bürstatd, Germany.

It raised serious questions about the ability of firefighters to contain such fires, because the
electrical current in solar panels can remain live even after the power supply is shut down.

The Australian Firefighters Union wants a review of training, saying some overseas firefighters
have been killed by electrocution.

PETER MARSHALL, UNITED FIREFIGHTERS UNION OF AUSTRALIA: Our understanding, very clearly, is that a
number of firefighters have lost their lives because of this DC current and, in fact, because the
equipment procedures and training were not in place.

The problem is, there's been a rush towards installing this type of equipment and there hadn't been
a lot of thought gone into what would happen in the event of a fire.

GEOFF STAPLETON: Yes, it is now time to make sure that firefighters made aware of what are the
issues of solar systems on houses. So more training is required of firefighters at this point in
time.

MARGOT O'NEILL: The industry is hopeful that Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett will decide
to fund more inspectors and undertake a national audit of roof-top systems to clarify any risk.

But State Government reforms are necessary as well. Industry officials want State electrical
regulators to formal responsibility for checking solar installations.

GEOFF STAPLETON: Ideally, with the growth now, it'd be better that all audits in the future are
undertaken by the electrical inspectors in each state.

MARGOT O'NEILL: The industry also wants state governments to use their power to ban dodgy imports.
Ted Spooner says he's been talking to various state officials about this for nearly two years, but
nothing has been done.

TED SPOONER: They basically work on the number of deaths. That's part of their performance
indicators, and as electrical regulators, if nobody's died, they-they have achieved their purpose.

MARGOT O'NEILL: A spokesperson for the NSW Department of Fair Trading told Lateline this evening
that it would be pleased to meet with Mr Spooner to discuss his concerns.

MARGOT O'NEILL: Margot O'Neill, Lateline.

TONY JONES: And a short time ago, the Minister Peter Garrett released a statement saying that all
systems, components and equipment used in the Solar Homes program must comply with relevant
Australian and international standards to be eligible for the rebate and every installation under
the program is required to be signed off by an accredited Clean Energy Council installer.

He also says his department is seeking technical advice on an appropriate inspection regime.