Queensland solar projects could become ‘unviable’ due to safety regulations row | Environment


Solar projects in Queensland could become “unviable”, the renewable energy industry’s peak body says, thanks to a dispute with the state government about new safety regulations for the installation of solar panels.

The Queensland government announced last week that licensed electricians would be required to mount commercial solar panels from 13 May.

Analysis by the Clean Energy Council estimates the change could cost the industry between $170m and $390m over the next decade, an impost that could put at risk Queensland’s ambitious renewable energy generation target of 50% by 2030.

The council’s director of energy generation, Anna Freeman, said it would make Queensland “a less attractive place to invest”.

“It will make Queensland an outlier. No other jurisdiction in the world has these requirements.”

The state industrial relations minister, Grace Grace, said the changes were made after concerns raised by the Electrical Trades Union and others about safety practices at solar construction sites, including the use of backpackers as labourers.

The mounting of solar panels is manual labour and does not require any electrical wiring work, but the panels are live during the process.

“Workers are at risk from electrocution … these are not jobs for unlicensed workers,” Grace said.

Solar developers have told Guardian Australia they are unsure whether they can find enough licensed electricians to complete projects under construction.

Lane Crockett, the head of renewable infrastructure for Impact Investment Group, the company building the Brigalow solar farm near Toowoomba, said the company had planned to hire 60 local labourers, who would be trained to install solar panels.

Instead, it would now require fly-in fly-out electricians. Crockett said the company was worried it might not be able to find enough electricians willing to carry out the manual work.

“We just don’t know at this point,” he said.

Employers in regional Queensland often have trouble filling vacancies for electricians, according to federal government labour force information. It says workers are often unwilling to relocate, and many employers cannot compete with salaries offered by the mining industry.

Crockett said the new regulation was likely to affect future investment decisions.

“It means that building solar farms in Queensland is more expensive, and it’s also got to mean there’s less investment, less renewables,” he said.

The CEC’s analysis shows the change would add 1.5% to 4% to the construction cost of a typical solar farm. Margins are increasingly thin in the renewable energy sector.

The Australian Energy Market Operator issues ratings called “marginal loss factors”, which score renewable projects based on local demand and effectively determine how much energy that project can feed into the grid.

The first wave of large-scale solar projects in Queensland capitalised on the best sites, close to substations, where additional generation was most valuable. The challenge for subsequent projects is making them work in a market where there are no imminent plans to phase out baseload power generators.

Freeman is calling on the government to delay implementation of the changes, to allow a longer consultation period to find a less problematic solution for the industry.

“The Queensland government is yet to present us with a safety rationale about why this change is required or why consultation was so rushed and haphazard,” Freeman said.

“The new rules effectively cut local communities out of a significant slice of the job opportunities created by new solar farm developments.

“The work in question is not electrical work, it is mechanical work. There is no need for an electrician to do it, and the end result is that many locals will miss out on job opportunities for no reason.”

In a statement last week, Grace said the change “achieves the right balance between our renewable energy target and ensuring worker and community safety”.

The ETU’s Queensland state secretary, Peter Ong, said the CEC’s response was “overheated and hysterical” and the industry’s comments would do little to change the perception that “major players in the solar industry put profits before people”.

“The renewables sector will continue to grow and it is important that as it grows it provides safe, reliable and sustainable power supplies to the people of Queensland.”

On Tuesday Westpac announced that it would source all its energy from renewables by 2025, the Australian Financial Review reported.

The bank said it would buy just over a quarter of the electricity generated by the 120-megawatt Bomen solar farm, to be built near Wagga Wagga in NSW, which would enable it to reach 45% of renewable energy use by 2021.

Chief operating officer Gary Thursby said the move was “key to delivering on our existing climate change and sustainability commitments”.

The tech firm Atlassian committed to the same target last week, while the Commonwealth Bank signed a wind farm deal in November that means it now sources 65% of its energy from renewables, with a target of 100% by 2030.



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