Shock risk from solar panels

Half of units badly installed, safety survey finds

26 August 2010

At least half of mainland France’s photovoltaic solar panel installations have been done incorrectly - with many leaving a danger of electrocution and others a fire risk.

Safety inspectors from the electrical safety certification agency Consuel - Comité National pour la Sécurité des Usagers de l’Electricité - said: "We found that 51% of all photovoltaic installations in mainland France that we inspected did not conform with the regulations."

Michel Faure, the director general of Consuel, which has had legal responsibility since 1973 for providing a test certificate on all new electrical installations, said until recently there was no obligatory electrical test certificate required for a photovoltaic solar panel installation.

A décret rendering such a test obligatory became operative in March but in the absence of a legal framework, last year Consuel surveyed 2,341 installations, including 1,100 in overseas departments, with the voluntary co-operation of installers and home owners.

Mr Faure said it was likely they had only uncovered a small fraction of the problem as they were checking sites where people were willing to have the checks done.

"Imagine what the rate of non-conformity might have been if the process of certification had been obligatory, he said.

Consuel says the dangers were significant. Of the 864 mainland installations at fault, 72% had a risk of electrocution and 28% a fire risk.

There have already been a number of fires across the country caused through incorrectly installed solar panel installations.

In France’s overseas departments only 21% of the installations were faulty.

The main failures found were: No warning signs present, no or inadequate earthing of the installation, incorrect cables or connections, absence of a lightning conductor in risk areas, and inadequate installation between the inverter and the electrical network. Industry insiders say one of the reasons for the problems has been the lack of trained electricians to install these systems.

The technology is new so many new companies have sprung up to install systems but the skilled labour is not available to meet the demand.

Photovoltaic systems, which convert light from the sun into electricity - unlike thermal solar systems that merely
heat up water (see article above) - have seen huge growth over the past few years driven by government fiscal incentives.

On offer is a grant of up to 50% of the cost of the works, and interest-free loans, as well as the possibility of reselling the electricity generated by the solar panels back in to the electrical grid.

The rate of resale back into the grid is around five times the amount paid through your domestic supply.

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