By Werner Fortuin
Solar PV (photovoltaic) energy is an important part of our country’s energy mix and will play an important role in resolving the energy crisis for many. However, many service providers in the industry are still effectively “unregulated”.
Although prudent developers, EPCs (a contractor that accepts the full responsibility for a solar PV project or part thereof) and installers follow the applicable NRS (National Rationalised Specifications), SANS (South African National Standard) and IEC (International Electrotechnical Commission) standards to ensure the safety and performance of their installations, unregulated service providers do not, and are blissfully unaware of the consequences of their actions.
As load shedding woes continue, there has been a surge in the adoption of solar energy. However, in this booming industry, a dangerous trend has emerged – the rise of unregulated solar power service providers.
To offer support and guidance, the South African Photovoltaic Industry Association (Sapvia) is one of the organisations that promotes, develops, and grows the PV industry in South Africa.
Unfortunately, many service providers still opt out of the voluntary membership. In Johannesburg alone, it is estimated that there are more than 20 000 unregistered solar systems. Although many these are residential, many belong to small, medium and micro producers (SMMEs).
While some may argue that unregulated service providers provide cheaper options for consumers, the hidden dangers they present far outweigh any short-term savings.
Unlike certified and licensed installers, non-compliant providers often lack the necessary training, expertise, and knowledge to design and implement systems safely and efficiently. Consequently, the chances of non-compliant installations, subpar equipment, and inadequate maintenance increase significantly.
These risks can lead to reduced energy output, higher costs, and even hazardous conditions that put the safety of on-site employees, as well as property, at risk.
Fly-by-night operators pose a massive risk to their customers as they cannot ensure the long-term performance and safety of the systems and installations and there is also the possibility of rejected insurance claims, higher insurance premiums and deductibles, and in some cases the inability to insure your assets.
Reputable companies carry liability insurance, which provides essential protection to business owners against any mishaps or property damage that might occur during or after the installation process. Without this coverage, businesses may be left with hefty repair bills or face legal battles if issues arise due to poor workmanship.
A case in point is the increase in the number of complaints related to buying and installing solar systems and generators from the Consumer Goods and Services Ombud (CGSO) office. The CGSO received 202 complaints from February 2022 to February 9, 2023. These included compliance certificates not being issued, payment accepted but goods undelivered, and systems not installed within agreed time frames. In addition, almost half of these suppliers refused to co-operate with the office when it conducted investigations. It simply is not worth the risk.
On a positive note, Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi recently announced that Sapvia had endorsed the Gauteng government’s programme to train 6 000 people as solar system installers. These are the kind of government initiatives that can positively contribute to the economy through skills development.
Governments and municipalities can play an even more active part by doing mandatory inspections for example, to ensure the quality of installations, check whether the buildings are structurally sound, and components are maintained. We have come a long way, but there is still a long road ahead in terms of ensuring widespread compliance to standards and good engineering practices.
The commercial and industrial solar industry is set to see rapid growth over the next few years and will play a massive part in the South African energy mix. There is no doubt that as it grows it will become heavily regulated, which would be of huge benefit to us all. But until that day, we need to work together – providers, industry associations, government, and consumers – to ensure that the future stays bright. The safest way possible.
Werner Fortuin is the head of technical operations at SolarAfrica.