Growing Commercial Solar Farm Industry in Queensland can Breathe a Sigh of Relief

by Tamlyn Jayatilaka 22 Oct. 2019

 

Investment in solar energy in Queensland remains attractive, with a controversial solar rule provision, governing projects 100kW and over, now omitted from the Electrical Safety Regulation 2013 (the Regulation). The provision—which would have made it compulsory for solar panels to be fitted by a licensed electrician—was declared invalid by Supreme Court of Queensland on May 29, 2019, after a legal challenge by a solar farm developer Maryrorough Solar. The Court of Appeal upheld this decision on June 25, 2019.  

The Rule That Could Have Been

Earlier this year, Electrical Safety (Solar Farms) Amendment Regulation 2019 included section 73A(3). Under the amendments, only licensed electrical workers were permitted to work on, locate, mount, fix and remove unplugged solar panels at a solar farm. According to the Regulation, solar farm is defined as a system of PV modules and associated infrastructure:

  • used to generate electricity with a total rated capacity of at least 100kW
  • that is, or will be, operated by a person for the purpose of conducting a business or undertaking

The rule was the first of its kind to be introduced in the world. Previously, a licensed electrical worker was not required and anyone could perform work on solar panels at a solar farm.

Backlash

The rule would likely have made Queensland less attractive to invest in solar energy.[1] Maryrorough Solar, which had an ongoing project at the time, brought a claim arguing that the amendments were unnecessarily restrictive without improving the safety of workers. It estimated that the changes would add close to AUD 3 million to the project, as its difficult to find skilled laborers in the remote areas where the projects are undertaken.[2] Reasons for this include that workers are often unwilling to relocate and that many employers cannot compete with salaries offered in the mining sector. Moreover, the provision could have impacted job opportunities for local people.[3]

Support for the changes

The Queensland Government justified the changes by arguing that workers are at risk of electrocution, as solar panels generate power as soon as they are exposed to light and cannot be isolated. In the case, the State contended that the amendments were a safety measure to eliminate injury and/or death, thus falling within the objects of the legislation.

Decision

The Supreme Court of Queensland found the amendment to be inconsistent with its principal legislation.[4] While the Electrical Safety Act 2002 (the Act) covers the licensing of persons to do “electrical work” in relation to “electrical equipment,” each of these terms are defined in the Act in ways that exclude the mounting and fixing of low-voltage solar panels. Although solar panels are live during mounting, it is manual labor that does not require any electrical wiring work. Therefore, the scope of the amendment was extended in a way that was inconsistent with the Act.

What Happens Now?

As a result of the decision of the Supreme Court, which was unanimously affirmed by the Court of Appeal,[5] the Queensland Parliament passed the Electrical Safety Amendment Regulation (No. 1) 2019 to omit the provision, clarifying that licensed electricians are not required to work on PV modules on solar farms.

The decision is viewed as a win for stakeholders in Queensland, with the Clean Energy Council concerned that solar projects could have become unviable due to sourcing and labor costs if the provision remained.[6] It estimated that requiring electricians to mount commercial solar panels could have cost the industry up to AUD 390 million, adding between 1.5 percent to 4 percent of the construction cost of a typical solar farm.[7] In addition to deterring commercial solar power, the expense could have put Queensland’s renewable energy generation target of 50% by 2030 in jeopardy.[8]

 

Overall, the decisions in Queensland will act as a signal to the rest of Australia: Knowing that similar provisions can be thwarted, it is not expected that further jurisdictions will follow suit.


[1] https://www.cleanenergycouncil.org.au/news/emergency-solar-roundtable-to-address-rushed-rules-that-will-cost-jobs-for-queensland-communities

[2] Federal government labour force information: https://docs.employment.gov.au/system/files/doc/other/341111electricianqld.pdf

[3] https://www.cleanenergycouncil.org.au/news/rushed-new-rules-for-solar-farms-risk-local-jobs-and-investment

[4] Maryrorough Solar Pty Ltd v Queensland [2019] QSC 135

[5] Queensland v Maryrorough Solar Pty Ltd [2019] QCA 129

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/apr/17/queensland-solar-projects-could-become-unviable-due-to-safety-regulations-row

[7] https://www.cleanenergycouncil.org.au/news/regional-jobs-and-communities-the-big-winners-from-court-of-appeal-decision-on-solar

[8] https://www.cleanenergycouncil.org.au/news/solar-labourers-to-down-tools-as-absurd-new-queensland-regulations-kill-local-jobs