Solar panel fire season is all year round and it’s getting more intense in Australia



FRNSW, Author provided

Timothy O’Leary, University of Melbourne and David Michael Whaley, University of South Australia

2020 was a bumper year for solar power in Australia. More solar PV systems were installed in the first nine months than in all of any previous year.

Almost one in four Australian houses now have rooftop solar panels. But the number of solar panel incidents reported by fire and emergency services has increased too.

Fire and Rescue NSW reportedly put out 30 blazes sparked by panels in just three months late last year.




Read more:
Australian building codes don’t expect houses to be fire-proof – and that’s by design


The exponential growth in solar PV and associated problems has attracted media and political attention.

In 2018, federal Energy Minister Angus Taylor warned his state counterparts lives were at risk from substandard solar panel installations. An audit of the Clean Energy Regulator by the Australian National Audit Office found there were potentially tens of thousands of badly installed and even unsafe rooftop systems. The regulator had inspected just 1.2% of rooftop installations.

It’s a nationwide problem

State and territory regulators are responsible for electrical safety. Only Victoria mandates an inspection of each installed system.

Taylor announced an inquiry into the industry last August.

Last October, Fire and Rescue NSW Superintendent Graham Kingland said:

Over the last five years we have seen solar panel related fires increase five-fold. It is not uncommon to see solar panels cause house and building fires.

On Christmas day, ACT Fire & Rescue attended a fire at a home in Theodore where the solar panels caught alight. Coincidentally, the location was Christmas Street!

Last month, Energy Safe Victoria warned the public to get solar systems serviced.

And Queensland Fire and Emergency Services attended at least 16 incidents caused by solar panels in the first half of 2017 and 33 in 2016.

9 News reports on the fire risks of poorly installed solar panel systems in Queensland.

Components such as DC isolators and inverters, rather than the actual panels, are the cause of most solar-related fires. A DC isolator is a manually operated switch next to a solar panel array that shuts off DC current between the array and the inverter. It was intended as an extra safety mechanism, but the switches have caused more problems than they have solved – particularly when not installed correctly or when poor-quality components are used.

Solar is cheaper in Australia but poorly regulated

A recent report rated Australia as one of the cheapest per kilowatt for solar PV, but it questioned our safety standards. Most solar systems sold in Australia use DC voltages that can pose a serious fire risk.

Unfortunately, Australia has been slow to adopt safer solar regulations. In contrast, the United States has had safety standards preventing the installation of conventional DC solar systems since as early as 2014.

It’s more difficult for lower-voltage, microinverter-based systems (requiring no DC isolator switch) to catch fire, but it’s not impossible.

An amendment to the DC isolator standard (AS/NZS 5033:2014) to improve product datasheets and ensure isolators can withstand the harsh Australian climate took effect on June 28 2019. By then, over 2 million systems had been installed on Australian rooftops.

Added to issues such as flammable cladding, dodgy electrical cable and other “grey imports” (products not sourced from approved manufacturers) in the building industry, we are now playing a game of catch-up.




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Poor-quality solar rooftop components have led to an expanding list of product recalls. The latest Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) recall list includes installations managed by industry giants such as Origin and AGL.

One notable recall in 2014 reported a risk of “arcing” and “eventual catastrophic failure, resulting in fire”. It listed no fewer than nine traders operating nationally as having used this failed product. The recall noted that the product supplier, Blueline Solar Pty Ltd, was insolvent.

What should consumers do? The ACCC said:

Owners should immediately shut down the PV system following the standard shutdown procedure.

If a consumer suspects they have one of the affected units, they should have an electrician inspect and replace the DC isolators.

Solar systems do not fall under the National Construction Code unless an ancillary structure is being created. Most systems are simply fixed with rails to an existing roof. If the code covered rooftop solar, this would require private certification and a compliance check on any system, as is the case overseas.




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Know what is on your roof

Research has shown consumers’ knowledge of solar systems is poor. Many owners have little idea if their system is working properly, or even at all.

And how would a consumer know what kind of DC isolator is on their roof or how to shut down the system in the event of a fire?

Solar panel systems are a growing incident category for firefighters. Yet even among firefighters there is some confusion on procedures to deal with a fire on live solar panels.

Firefighters put out a solar panel fire
Even some firefighters aren’t clear about how to deal with fires on live solar panels.
riopatuca/Shutterstock

Solar panel fires have yet to make it onto a top 10 list of domestic fire causes (statistically, your Christmas tree lights are a greater risk). But the sheer volume of installations and ageing components in uninspected older systems are increasing the risks.

One Aussie inventor has developed a product PVStop — “a spray-on solution to mitigate solar panel risks by reducing DC output to safe levels to offer homeowners and emergency personnel peace of mind”.

The latest update on Clean Energy Regulator inspections completed to June 30 2020 shows a negligible 0.05% decrease in substandard systems. Roughly one in 30 systems (3.1%) have been deemed unsafe and another 17.9% substandard.

Chart showing causes of unsafe and potentially unsafe solar PV installations

The Conversation. Data: Clean Energy Regulator SRES report

Without adequate solar PV industry standards, tools, inspection regimes, procedures or training, dangerous scenarios may increasingly put lives at risk. The high uptake of solar is very good news for reducing household electricity bills and carbon emissions, but safety issues undermine these positives.




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The surge in installations, the introduction of batteries, the ageing of panels and components together with more extreme weather events mean solar panel incidents are likely to continue increasing.

Australia prides itself on being a world leader in household solar but until now we have not fully appreciated the safety risks. Fire authorities would do well to update fire safety guides that omit specific information on solar. And system owners should ensure they understand the risks and shut-down procedures.The Conversation

Timothy O’Leary, Lecturer in Construction and Property, University of Melbourne and David Michael Whaley, Lecturer, University of South Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Curious Kids: how do solar panels work?



Installing solar panels on a roof.
Shutterstock/lalanta71

Andrew Blakers, Australian National University


How do solar panels work? – Nathan, age 5, Melbourne, Australia.



The Sun produces a lot of energy called solar energy. Australia gets 20,000 times more energy from the Sun each day than we do from oil, gas and coal. This solar energy will continue for as long as the Sun lives, which is another 5 billion years.

Solar panels are made of solar cells, which is the part that turns the solar energy in sunlight into electricity.

Solar cells make electricity directly from sunlight. It is the most trusted energy technology ever made, which is why it is used on satellites in space and in remote places on Earth where it is hard to fix problems.




Read more:
Curious Kids: how does electricity work?


How do solar cells work?

Solar cells are made using silicon atoms. An atom is basically a building block – just like a Lego brick but so tiny you’d need a special machine to see them.

Because the silicon atoms are so small you need trillions and trillions of them for a solar cell.

To make the solar cell you need a wafer layer of silicon, about the same size as a dinner plate but much much thinner – only about three times the thickness of a strand of your hair.

This silicon layer is changed in a special way using hot temperatures of up to 1,000℃. Then, a sheet of metal is put onto the back of the layer and a metal mesh with holes in it, like a net, is put on the front. It is this mesh side of the layer that will face the Sun.

When 60 solar cells are made they are fixed together behind a layer of glass to make a solar panel.

On this roof you can see one solar hot water collector (top left) and 42 solar electricity panels, each of which is made of 60 solar cells combined behind a protective glass.
Shutterstock

If your house has a solar power system, it will probably have 10 to 50 solar panels attached to your roof. Millions of solar panels are used to make a large solar farm out in the countryside.

Each silicon atom contains extremely tiny and lightweight things called electrons. These electrons each carry a small electric charge.

Each tiny silicon atom has a nucleus at the centre made up of 14 teeny-tiny protons and 14 teeny-tiny neutrons. And 14 teeny-tiny electrons go around the nucleus. It doesn’t really look exactly like this diagram but you get the idea.
Shutterstock

When sunlight falls on a solar panel it can hit one of the electrons in a silicon atom and knock it free.

These electrons can move around but because of the special way the cell is made they can only go one way, up towards the side that faces the Sun. They can’t go the other way.

So whenever the Sun is shining on the solar cell it causes many electrons to flow upwards but not downwards, and this creates the electric current needed to power things in our homes such as lights, the television and other electrical items.

If the sunlight is bright, then lots of electrons get hit and so lots of electric current can flow. If it is cloudy, then fewer electrons get hit and the current will be cut by three quarters or more.

At night, the solar panel produces no electric power and we need to rely on batteries or other sources of electricity to keep the lights on.

How are solar cells being used?

Solar cells are the cheapest way to make electricity – cheaper than new coal or nuclear power stations. This is why solar cells are being installed around the world about five times faster than coal power stations and 20 times faster than nuclear power stations.

In Australia, nearly all new power stations are either solar power stations or wind farms. Solar and wind electricity can be used to run electric cars in place of polluting petrol cars. Solar and wind electricity can also heat and cool your house and can be used in industry in place of coal and natural gas.

Windmills and solar panels can produce electricity.
Shutterstock

Solar and wind are helping lessen the amount of greenhouse gases which damage our Earth. They are cheap, and they continue to get even cheaper and the more we use it the quicker we can stop using energy that can hurt the Earth (like coal, oil and gas).

What’s more, silicon is the second most common atom in the world (after oxygen). In fact, sand and rocks are made of mostly silicon and oxygen. So, we could never run out of silicon to make more solar cells.




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Hello, curious kids! Have you got a question you’d like an expert to answer? Ask an adult to send your question to curiouskids@theconversation.edu.auThe Conversation

Andrew Blakers, Professor of Engineering, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

There’s a looming waste crisis from Australia’s solar energy boom



Rooftop solar has boomed, but soalr panels only last about 20 years. What happens to the waste?
Flickr, CC BY-SA

Rodney Stewart, Griffith University; Hengky Salim, Griffith University, and Oz Sahin, Griffith University

As Australians seek to control rising energy costs and tackle the damaging impacts of climate change, rooftop solar has boomed.

To manage the variability of rooftop solar – broadly, the “no power at night” problem – we will also see a rapid increase in battery storage.

The question is: what will happen to these panels and batteries once they reach the end of their life?

If not addressed, ageing solar panels and batteries will create a mountain of hazardous waste for Australia over the coming decades.

Our research, published recently in the Journal of Cleaner Production, looked at the barriers to managing solar panel waste, and how to improve it.

A potentially toxic problem

Solar panels generally last about 20 years. And lead-acid and lithium-ion batteries, which will be the most common battery storage for solar, last between five and 15 years. Many solar panels have already been retired, but battery waste will start to emerge more significantly in 2025. By 2050 the projected amount of waste from retired solar panels in Australia is over 1,500 kilotonnes (kT).

Mass of end of life solar panels (a) and battery energy storage (b) 2020-2050.
Salim et al. 2019

Solar panels and batteries contain valuable materials such as metals, glass, ruthenium, indium, tellurium, lead and lithium.

Recycling this waste will prevent environmental and human health problems, and save valuable resources for future use.

Product stewardship

Australia has a Product Stewardship Act, which aims to establish a system of shared responsibility for those who make, sell and use a product to ensure that product does not end up harming the environment or people at the end of its life.

In 2016, solar photovoltaic (PV) systems were added to a priority list to be considered for a scheme design. This includes an assessment of voluntary, co-regulatory and regulatory pathways to manage the waste streams.

Sustainability Victoria (on behalf of the Victorian state government and with the support of states and territories) is leading a national investigation into a system of shared responsibility for end-of-life solar photovoltaic systems in Australia. Our research project has supported the assessment process.

Industries play a crucial role in the success of any product stewardship scheme. As we move into assessing and testing possible schemes, Australia’s PV sector (and other stakeholders) will have critical input.

A preferred product scope and stewardship approach will be presented to environment ministers. Scheme design and implementation activities are tentatively set to start in 2020.

Moving towards a circular economy

Federal and state environment ministers recently agreed to update the National Waste Policy to incorporate the principles of a circular economy.

This approach aims to reduce the need for virgin raw materials, extend product life, maintain material quality at the highest level, prioritise reuse, and use renewable energy throughout the process.




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Explainer: what is the circular economy?


Businesses in Australia currently have little incentive to innovate and improve the recycling rate. By helping implement circular business models such as lease, refurbishment and product-service systems, we can boost recycling, reduce collection costs and prolong tech lifetimes.

Requiring system manufacturers, importers or distributors to source solar panels and batteries designed for the environment makes both economic and environmental sense. By doing so, recyclers will recover more materials and achieve higher recirculation of recovered resources.

Consumers need to be provided with proper guidance and education for responsible end-of-life management of solar panels and batteries.

Immature domestic recycling capability

Now that China is no longer accepting waste for recycling, Australia needs to rapidly develop its domestic recycling industry. This will also spur job creation and contribute to the green economy.

Given Australia is struggling to recycle simple waste, such as cardboard and plastics, in a cost-effective way, we need to question our capability to deal with more complex solar PV and battery waste.

Australia currently has little capacity to recycle both solar panels and batteries.

And even if China were to suddenly start accepting Australia’s waste – an unlikely proposition – we cannot simply export our problem. As a signatory to the Basel Convention, exporting hazardous materials requires permits.

A previous study suggests half of Australia’s scrap metal is exported for overseas processing, which indicates the lack of incentives for domestic recycling.

Even if we build domestic recycling capability for solar panels and batteries, it will be underused while landfills remain available as a low-cost disposal option.

It’s promising that South Australia and the ACT have banned certain e-waste categories from entering landfill, while Victoria will implement an all-encompassing e-waste landfill ban from July 1 2019. This means any end-of-life electrical or electronic device that requires an electromagnetic current to operate must be recycled.

Creating a circular economy for solar and battery waste will need a strong commitment from policymakers and industry. Ideally, we need to prioritise reuse and refurbishment before recycling.

If we combine sensible policies with proactive business strategy and education to promote recycling rates, we can have a reliable and truly sustainable source of renewable energy in this country.


The authors would like to acknowledge the contribution of Michael Dudley from Sustainability Victoria to this article.The Conversation

Rodney Stewart, Professor, Griffith School of Engineering, Griffith University; Hengky Salim, PhD Candidate, Griffith University, and Oz Sahin, Senior Research Fellow, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Are solar panels a middle-class purchase? This survey says yes


File 20180606 137288 19a5k4i.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The latest research suggests that in Australia, rooftop solar photovoltaics are more likely to be adopted by middle-class households.
Author provided

Adam McHugh, Murdoch University

The rate of growth in residential rooftop solar photovoltaics (PV) in Australia since 2008 has been nothing short of breathtaking.

Our new research suggests that the households most likely to join in the solar spree are those that are affluent enough to afford the upfront investment, but not so wealthy that they don’t worry about their future power bills.

Australia now has the highest penetration of residential rooftop PV of any country in the world, with the technology having been installed on one in five freestanding or semi-detached homes. In the market-leading states of Queensland and South Australia this ratio is about one in three, and Western Australia is not far behind, with one in four having PV.

The explosion in rooftop PV uptake since 2008.
Derived from Clean Energy Regulator data. Click image to enlarge.

While PV panels give households more control over their electricity bills, and each new installation helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the market’s rapid expansion has posed significant challenges for the management of the electricity system as a whole.




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Unlike other industries where goods can be warehoused or stockpiled to manage fluctuations in supply and demand, electricity is not yet readily storable. Storage options such as batteries are now commercially available, but haven’t yet reached widespread use. This means that a system operator is required to keep the grid balanced in real time, ideally with just the right amount of capacity and backup to manage shocks in supply or demand.

Securing the right amount of generation capacity for the electricity grid relies on long-term planning, informed by accurate supply and demand forecasts. Too much investment means excessive prices or assets lying idle (or both). Too little means longer, deeper or more frequent blackouts.

But as solar panels spread rapidly through the suburbs, the job of forecasting supply and demand is getting much harder.

This is because the commercial history of residential rooftop PV has been too short, and the pace of change too fast, for a clear uptake trend to be established. Previous attempts to predict the market’s continuing growth have thus entailed a lot of guesswork.

Why do people buy solar panels?

One way to improve our understanding is to talk to consumers directly about their purchasing intentions and decisions. The trick is to find out what prompts householders to take that final step from considering investing in solar panels, to actually buying them.

This was the approach we took with our research, published today in the international journal, Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews. We analysed data from a survey of more than 8,000 Queensland households in 2014 and 2015, part of a survey series commissioned by an industry group now known as Energy Queensland.

Comparison of motivational factors between surveyed PV intenders and adopters.
Bondio, Shahnazari & McHugh (2018). Click image to enlarge.

We found that the decision to go solar was driven largely by housholds’ concerns over rising electricity bills and the influence that economic life events have over perceptions of affordability.

But the households that tended to adopt PV were also those that were affluent enough not to be put off by the relatively large upfront cost.

This combination of having access to funds, while at the same time being concerned about future electricity prices, appears to be a broadly middle-class trait.

While the upfront cost of PV can deter lower-income households, this can be overcome by receiving an offer that is too good to refuse, or if concerns about ongoing electricity bills are acute – particularly in the case of retirees.

Electricity price uncertainty is a particular concern for retirees, who typically have a lower income. We found that retirees were more likely than non-retirees to invest in solar panels, all else being equal. Retirees, like many people who invest in solar power, seem to view buying solar panels as being like entering into a long-term contract for electricity supply, in that it provides price certainty over the life of the PV system.

We also found that while the idea of self-sufficiency was important for developing an intention to buy solar panels, this motivation later fell away among households that went ahead and bought them. This could be because householders who buy solar panels, but find themselves still relying significantly on the grid, may conclude that self-sufficiency isn’t achievable after all.

About one-third of those who said they intended to buy solar panels cited environmental concerns as a reason for their interest. Yet this factor did not significantly increase the odds of them going on to adopt the technology. This suggests that when it comes to the crunch, household finances are often the crucial determining factor.




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We also found the chances of adopting solar panels were highest for homes with three or four bedrooms. Smaller homes may face practical limitations regarding roof space, whereas homes with five bedrooms or more are likely to be more valuable, suggesting that these householders may sit above a wealth threshold beyond which they are unconcerned about electricity bills.

But perhaps our most important finding is that analysis of household survey data can be useful to forecasters. Knowing who is adopting rooftop PV – and why – should enable better predictions to be made about the technology’s continuing expansion, including the crucial question of when the market might reach its saturation point.


The ConversationThe research paper can be downloaded here for free until August 1, 2018.

Adam McHugh, Honorary Research Associate, Murdoch University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.