Dodgy home solar panel installations are putting lives at risk and Peter Garrett is solely responsible, if you believe the news reports doing the rounds today.

Except there is nothing out of the ordinary about the number of botched installations, not a single house has burnt down, and most of the solar panels were installed under the previous coalition government in a program launched by then-environment minister Malcolm Turnbull.

The ABC’s “investigation” into solar panel installations has fingered the embattled environment minister for putting about 2000 homes at risk of electrical fire by incorrectly installing the panels. Garrett’s fortunes — already under fire over deadly home fires sparked by roof insulation —  “appear to be going from bad to worse” the AM program declared this morning.

But the firm charged with auditing solar panel installation — and used as the key source in last night’s Lateline story — calls the concerns a “beat-up” and points out most were installed under the Howard Government.

A spokesperson for the Clean Energy Council (CEC) told Crikey “people are making it more political than what it is”. Of the thousands of solar panel installations sparked by the rebate scheme, none have caused a home fire.

The Coalition doubled the rebate on solar panels from $4000 to $8000 in the 2007 federal Budget, sparking a frenzied up-take that more than quadrupled the number of installers operating in Australia. The funding blow-out forced Labor to cut the rebate in half last year and apply a means-testing formula.

Geoff Stapleton conducted the latest audits as a sub-contractor for the CEC and wasn’t surprised by results showing about 3% of systems have been mis-installed. As more solar panels are fitted, more will inevitably be installed badly.

He told Crikey the number of installers has grown from 400 to  1700; about 6000 were installed in the first six years of the program, while the government reported 6000 inquiries in one week alone last year.

Stapleton doesn’t know who took the story to Lateline. And he rejects the program’s assertion that the CEC demanded the latest audits last year — these were requested by the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, he said.

The problem systems are being installed on AC power rather than the industry-standard DC voltage. Every industry has its cowboys that will fail to meet installation instructions, Stapleton said. “We take these matters very seriously,” he said.

Australian standards are the toughest in the world and have been taken up globally as industry-standard. “We have standards in Australia that no other country even has,” Stapleton said.

Opposition environment spokesperson Greg Hunt has called for another auditor-general inquiry into solar panel installations (something Garrett says the government will consider). He told AM:

These three programs have all been riddled by mismanagement. Clearly the minister is not across them and there are home owners who that are at risk.

A spokesperson for Hunt is yet to respond to Crikey’s questions over the former government’s own role in the rapid roll-out of solar panel installations.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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