SolarKing – The Greatest Debacle in Solar PV: Australia’s Rooftop DC Isolator Fires

 

The Australian solar PV market is on fire. Generous subsidies and support mechanisms have produced almost 2 million solar PV installations across the country, placing Australia among the leaders in solar PV deployment. It is also literally true, in that Australia is suffering a spate of solar-­?related fires, hundreds of them. The cause of these fires isn’t the solar panels themselves, but rather a device installed next to solar panels called a rooftop DC isolator (or disconnect) switch—a uniquely Australian requirement.

How Australia came to mandate these switches has nothing to do with safety, testing, or standards of best practice. By mid-­?2010, with over 100,000 solar panels installed across Australia, solar panels hadn’t caused a single fire, or harm to anyone. The solar industry was booming, but apparently not everyone was happy.

Silly season on solar PV started in February 2010 with some wild claims.

Peter Marshall of the Firefighters Union of Australia was quoted as saying “a number of firefighters have lost their lives from this DC current”—a complete fabrication. Similar stories followed, and the message spread like wildfire: solar is dangerous; the firefighters said so. [1]

In mid-­?2010, Melbourne Metropolitan Fire Brigade investigator Rod East, responding to dubious claims of solar panel-­?caused house fires, called for tighter regulations. Specifically, Mr. East wanted “rules to ensure an isolation switch to turn off any electric current was located both at the switchboard and near the device.” A DC isolator was already required at the switchboard, but the firefighters’ demand compelled some state regulators and power companies to mandate the additional rooftop DC isolator next to solar panels. The practice was widely adopted. [2]

The federal government, in turn, ordered an inspection program on solar panels, starting in 2011. The inspections revealed that almost a quarter of the solar panel installations were substandard or unsafe. More than 90% of these installations were traced back to a single cause: the DC switch. [3]

In October 2011, Australia had its first confirmed, solar panel-­?related fire, at a toy library in Darwin. The rooftop DC isolator caught fire, and six toddlers were evacuated from the building, fortunately located next door to the fire station. The fire didn’t spread and was quickly extinguished. [4]

Despite the lack of fires or any demonstrable harm from solar panels themselves, and in spite of the evidence showing the fire risk from DC switches, Standards Australia moved to mandate the rooftop DC switch nationwide in 2012, in the name of fire safety.

During the standards-­?drafting process, Standards New Zealand sought an exemption from the rooftop DC isolator requirement, calling it a stupid idea. The rift eventually led to Australia-­?only and New Zealand-­?only sections of the standard— usually technical standards are harmonized between the two countries. [5]

Submitters to the drafting process warned against the rooftop DC isolator requirement. Testing reports detailed the dangers of the switch, especially in firefighting situations. Further inspections of solar panels in Australia continued to show issues with the dodgy devices. But Standards Australia forged ahead, and in late 2012 the rooftop DC isolator became a legally mandated requirement in Australia—the only place in the world today.

Germany, itself a world leader in solar electricity, had once required a practice similar to Australia’s rooftop DC isolator requirement but eventually stopped, because it was causing too many fires. The Germans found that placing DC switches in exposed places creates a degenerative process that, without regular maintenance, causes the switches to heat up, and eventually, to catch fire—even the high-­?quality German ones. [6]

In Australia, the fires started immediately after the introduction of rooftop DC isolators, and so did the product recalls. By January 2012, Australia had its first product recall on DC isolators due to a high number of faults and risk of fire. By October 2012, days before the nationwide requirement came into effect, Australia saw the front of a wave in solar panel-­?related fires, all caused by the rooftop switch.[7]

Now Australia has become a new kind of leader in the solar PV industry. As of November 2014, there have been more than 167 fires in Queensland alone—all related to the rooftop DC isolator. That’s more solar-­?related fires than Germany

(120) and the United States (under two dozen) combined, had over more than 20 years and across more than 2 million installations. Some of the fires in Germany, themselves, were the result of rooftop DC switches. [8]

Australia’s rooftop solar isolator fires continue unabated to this day, along with the product recalls—6 brands of isolators pulled from the shelves so far, accounting for more than 10% of the Australian market on DC isolators. With nearly 2 million solar panels installed with these fire-­?starting devices across Australia, there are likely to be more faults, failures, and fires, threatening more homes, businesses, and schools—every one of them preventable and unnecessary. [9]

The solution is simple. Some solar PV industry experts—those most concerned with safety and quality—are asking Standards Australia to issue an amendment to the technical standard for installing solar panels, eliminating the requirement for a rooftop DC isolator. Furthermore, all existing rooftop DC isolators should be removed. The rooftop DC isolator requirement isn’t working and must be amended, with urgency. It’s time for this colossal debacle to end, before Australia becomes a leader in solar PV for another reason, with the first solar-­?related fatality.

You can sign the petition at: https://www.communityrun.org/petitions/remove-­? the-­?solar-­?dc-­?isolator-­?from-­?the-­?roof.  [10]

Click here to access the references 1 to 10.

 

Republished with permission from SolarSafe.

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