Promoting a safe and efficient solar industry
By Leslie Monk, Design Firm Consultant, Buildings at Schneider Electric

The adoption of renewable energy is good news, whichever way you look at it.  It takes us one step closer to a decarbonised future whilst diversifying and bolstering energy provision.  In South Africa, the long-term sustainability of our natural resources is at an exciting juncture with renewable projects coming online daily.

However, with this rapid growth there is also a caveat; how do we ensure that these projects, meet set standards for safety, quality, and reliability?  This is particularly true in the burgeoning solar photovoltaic (PV) industry, where both consumers and businesses are investing heavily in these installations.

Whilst the enthusiasm for solar power is admirable, the proliferation of unregulated solar installations does pose significant challenges. One key concern is the suspected involvement of semi-skilled and/or “under-qualified” installers who, although resourceful, potentially lack the expertise and experience to ensure the safety and quality of installations.

According to recent estimates, in Johannesburg alone, there are more 20 000 unregistered solar systems. Many of these are either residential installations or belong to SMMEs.  This is disconcerting as a realistic perception exists that many such systems were installed by non-reputable installers, in particular installers that are not registered with the South African Photovoltaic Industry Association (SAPVIA).

To be accredited by SAPVIA, members must be registered with the Department of Employment and Labour and completed the Solar PV Assessment to prove that they are competent.

Furthermore, these registered installers must be able to provide end-users with an electrical certificate of compliance and, preferably, a SAPVIA PV GreenCard that lists the detail of all system components and the required steps completed during the installation.

The bottom line

From a technology and safety perspective, the regulatory landscape for the solar industry in South Africa is lacking in specificity.  SANS 10142-1, also known as the Code of Practice for the Wiring of Premises, Part 1: Low Voltage Installations, is listed in the Electrical Installation Regulations of the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHS Act) as a mandatory safety standard. And whilst it provides some guidance for electrical installations, it does not comprehensively address some unique aspects pertaining to solar power.

Moreover, it is probably not well understood that the proposed standard dealing with Small Scale Embedded Generation (SSEG), viz., SANS10142-1-2, is not yet at the stage where it could be promulgated. To some extent though, there is relief and possible recourse, because the relevant part of the IEC 60364 family of international standards, i.e., IEC 60364-7-712, is normatively referenced in SANS 10142-1, but again this does not necessarily cover all the nuances of solar PV systems.

To this end, South Africa must prioritise the development a comprehensive regulatory framework, tailored to the solar industry's unique requirements. The absence of specific standards and guidelines can lead to inconsistencies in installations, potentially compromising quality and posing risk to the safety of persons and property.

Comprehensive regulation would encompass aspects such as PV installations, hybrid energy systems, and energy storage solutions and will include benefits such as:

  • Safety – it will ensure that all solar installations meet safety standards. This is particularly crucial given the potential risks associated with PV systems, such as electrical shocks and electric arc hazard. The latter presents a significant challenge to protect against, with building fires not least one dreaded consequence.
  • Industry excellence, which ensures that solar components and systems meet minimum quality standards. This enhances the longevity and efficiency of solar installations and manages maintenance costs.
  • Consumer protection that provides end-users and prosumers with a level of assurance that the solar systems they invest in are reliable and safe, protecting their interests and financial investments.
  • Economic Growth - a regulated solar industry can foster economic growth by creating job opportunities, promoting research and development, and attracting investment.

Address grid integration challenges, enabling consumers to sell excess, whilst maintaining grid stability.