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O’Farrell under pressure over solar scheme

May 22nd, 2011 Australia


NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell has rejected claims that a statewide safety check of solar panels is a politically motivated smokescreen.

NSW Fair Trading will this week begin a widespread check of solar panels after a small number of safety concerns were revealed during a February audit of homes in Port Macquarie.

But the move has infuriated the solar energy industry.

The Australian Solar Energy Society (ASES) accused Mr O’Farrell of deliberately leaking the Port Macquarie findings to distract attention from the government’s decision to wind back the controversial solar bonus scheme.

Mr O’Farrell denied any smokescreen and continued to press claims that rates being paid to solar bonus scheme participants must be slashed by one third to stave off a major budget blow-out.

“What’s clear today is the more you see of this scheme the more it’s starting look like a pink batts scheme,” Mr O’Farrell said, in a reference to federal Labor’s now scrapped insulation program.

“It’s not only blown out in costs by $759 million … but now we discover the Fair Trading audit shows that the panels in Port Macquarie indicated a high level of irregularities in their installation.”

Out of 55 homes checked in Port Macquarie there were safety concerns about the installation of 16 solar panels.

Three were found to have “serious” flaws.

Issues encountered included potentially dangerous wiring and signage defects.

Others were found to be non-compliant with building regulations.

Mr O’Farrell claimed the scheme had attracted “scam artists” who had disregarded safety and said the safety checks would now add to its overall cost.

ASES chief executive John Grimes accused the O’Farrell government of leaking the Port Macquarie findings to a Sunday newspaper ahead of Monday’s planned party room meeting at which the issue will be discussed.

“It’s disingenuous for a government to raise this, to leak it to the media, to not discuss it with the industry, a day before a critical party room meeting,” society chief executive John Grimes told reporters in Canberra.

“This is a government that is under enormous pressure, this is a shambolic response and the people of NSW will see it for exactly that.”

Earlier, NSW Fair Trading Deputy Commissioner Steve Griffin said he was concerned about the Port Macquarie findings.

“And we’re going to go out there and do more audits to make sure consumers can be confident that when they’re installing these systems it’s done appropriately,” he added.

The statewide checks will initially focus on the Sydney metro area.

Mr Griffin declined to directly answer questions from journalists about any potential political motivations behind the checks.

He also denied NSW Fair Trading sat on its Port Macquarie findings.

Results from the tests were known before the March state election but the new coalition was told when it took office, Mr Griffin said.

Mr O’Farrell said he was only told of the findings around one week ago.

“We were certainly monitoring what was going on in the community, seeing if there were complaints coming forward,” Mr Griffin added.

“If there were, we certainly would’ve been more urgent on it.

“But as a result there were no complaints, there were no issues coming forward.

“Nevertheless we’re still eager to get out there and have a much broader investigation.”