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Solar industry beats Qld in red tape battle

Liam Walsh AFR Jun 25, 2019

The solar industry has won a battle against a Queensland law requiring licensed electricians to install panels on large-scale projects, a regulation they said was not about safety but about placating unions.

Queensland’s Court of Appeal on Tuesday dismissed an application by the government to enforce a new regulation that required the use of licensed electricians on projects such as solar farms.

The Palaszczuk government had introduced the regulation in May this year, arguing that serious risks of electrical shock loomed for people installing panels at large-scale facilities.

Businesses had argued that the work could be safely conducted by trained labourers. Then in that same month, Brigalow Solar Farm – a proposed 34 megawatt project in southern Queensland designed to power the equivalent of 11,300 homes – successfully challenged the new regulation in Queensland’s Supreme Court.

The government subsequently appealed that ruling, only for that challenge to be dismissed with costs by the Court of Appeal on Tuesday.

The decision partly flowed around definitions of “electrical work”. The Electrical Safety Act in defining “work” carved out activities such as fixing equipment in place if the task did not involve connecting the device to an electricity supply.

“The act comprehensively defines the work for which an electrical licence is required such as to leave no room for modification by delegated legislation,” Justice Hugh Fraser wrote in a decision backed by Justice Philip McMurdo and Justice David Boddice.

The new regulation “would involve ‘a new step in policy’ which cuts across that aspect of the act by requiring a licence for work that is not ‘electrical work’”, the ruling said.

Brigalow Solar Farm’s Lane Crockett described the decision as a “relief”, with panels able to be installed by trained labourers and licensed electricians still doing the electricity connections.

“This gives us the certainty we need to move forward, hiring the workers we need to keep building this solar farm,” he said. Mr Crockett is head of renewables for Impact Investment Group, which manages the fund that owns Brigalow Solar Farm.

Jack Hooper of electrical services provider Gem Energy also welcomed the decision.

“It will … decrease the bottleneck the industry faces with quality tradespeople,” he told The Australian Financial Review. “Our biggest challenge right now is to find skilled subcontractors.”

Mr Hooper argued one problem had been that a shortage of qualified electricians existed, so requiring only such people to do installations would lead to a slowdown in projects.

He also said costs would have increased between 10 per cent and 20 per cent on solar panel installations for commercial rooftops – such as for shopping centres. A 200 kilowatt system for instance, could cost an additional $30,000 on a $300,000 job, he estimated.

“Our business would have been massively impacted,” he said.

Mr Hooper also argued that it was unnecessary red tape and trained labourers could do the work safely. “It was never about safety,” he said.

Clean Energy Council chief executive Kane Thornton said industry “should never have had to go through the courts to resolve something that could easily have been worked out with a full and proper consultation process”.

Some industry figures suspect the regulation was a move to placate unions.

But the Queensland government has been adamant safety was the driving concern.

“We introduced these regulations following advice from an expert safety panel,” Industrial Relations Minister Grace Grace said in announcing the appeal last month. “When it comes to electrical safety there are no second chances.”

Electrical Safety Commissioner Greg Skyring also said at the time that “contrary to some of the commentary I’ve seen … these risks are very real and very serious”.

Ms Grace’s office is preparing an announcement to respond to the latest setback.

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