The new battery standard drew a bit of flak during its conception but CEC technical support leader James Patterson explains why it’s actually a pretty good outcome, all things considered.

Our solar and battery standards change so often it can feel like a full-time job just keeping up to date. For electricians working in solar, it pays to be aware of the process of how standards are written to help you identify a scare campaign versus knowing the best time to standup and make your opinion count.

I was crawling around on roofs when the EL-042 committee wrote the rule that makes Australia the only place in the world that mandates rooftop isolators back in 2012. I was accustomed to installing solar systems without them and remember being disappointed with the new rule because I thought it went against common sense. Every time I mounted one I would ask myself, ‘Why add another point of failure to an unprotected circuit?’

Back then I thought I knew everything about solar. But after working at the Clean Energy Council and being part of the EL-042 Standards Committee, I realised there is more to these issues. For starters, I didn’t appreciate consumer advocates, product testers, unions, building codes representatives, engineers associations, networks, regulators, emergency services workers and many more are all part of our industry. They all have different but important perspectives on a vast range of issues confronting the industry. Although sometimes I wish I had a magic wand to make everyone agree with me.

Standards Committee members are volunteers, which means no-one gets paid to participate. We are supposed to operate for the good of the Australian public and rise above the interests of individual organisations, but committee members also come to the negotiating table with the perspectives of the groups they represent. All up, 38 stakeholder organisations get to vote on the solar standards.

A delicate balance

To get a standard passed, 80% of the committee members need to agree with the document. And once a standard is passed and agreed, you share responsibility for it. If you have been sitting on the committee for years and have waived through a given clause half a dozen times, it’s not exactly responsible to go out in the media objecting to the fact it’s in there. Why didn’t you say something during the multiple stages of the development of that standard that are specifically designed to draw out issues?

When it comes to the more recent battery standards, a consensus was achieved across the Australian representatives. That does not mean that every organisation that voted for the standard agreed with every part of it. There are parts we like and parts we don’t, but getting a standard in place is important to have a nationally-agreed set of safety rules for installing home batteries across the whole industry.

Getting strong support on this standard after five years of negotiating and re-writing is significant, despite the apparent disagreements about the rule that requires the installation of a fire proof material (like a cement sheet) in specific circumstances to provide an additional level of fire protection. This put the CEC in a hard position, but on balance getting an agreed standard on battery installation is a big positive and will help to clear up confusion across the industry.

Having a standard sitting in limbo would have created an uneven playing field between electricians trying to do the right thing and those who cut corners. It would also mean a DIY lithium battery made by a tinkerer could be installed in the same way as a quality off-the-shelf product that has passed best practice manufacturing processes. Nobody thinks that would’ve been a fair outcome.

Importantly, we also would have missed the chance to have AS 5139 added into the next amendment to AS/NZS 3000, which had a very tight timeline. This means that most of the state safety regulators would have found it difficult to mandate the new battery standards for years after its release.

A significant battery incident that resulted in loss of life would be bad for our industry at any time. However, if it happened without current battery standards in place it could put the brakes on government support schemes and possibly the entire industry at an important time in its development. There are incentive schemes that will see nearly half a million batteries installed in the next decade – this won’t happen if safety and quality standards aren’t in place.

James Patterson is the technical support leader at the Clean Energy Council.

Consultation is key

There are six main stages in the development of standards. The public comment stage gives you an opportunity to review and comment on a standard prior to its completion. The EL-042 committee cannot introduce a contentious rule like the “cement sheet rule” without following Standards Australia’s process.

This means that the “cement sheet rule” was discussed and explored at length by the members of the committee during 2017, 2018 and the beginning of 2019 before the committee agreed to publish the draft to find out what the public thought. It can’t get to the public comment stage without the committee agreeing the draft is ready to be seen.

During the public comment period, some committee members sat back while the CEC worked to consult with installers. Generally when we need to make a hard call on behalf of installers, we consult with our Installer Reference Group (IRG). The IRG is an industry-based advisory committee made up of 24 accredited designers and installers that meets monthly to provide a direct voice from industry into CEC to help inform us on important decisions.

When it came to the “cement sheet rule” however, we took a deeper approach. We wanted to get a broader view than just the IRG because we anticipated a lot of electricians would want to have their say.

So, months before the committee members cast the final vote in the ballot in July, we asked electricians about Dr 5139. In February 2019, when the rule became public, the CEC hosted two webinars that gave more than 600 accredited installers a crash course in the draft battery standard. We spoke specifically about the “cement sheet rule” for roughly 15 minutes in the first webinar.

In these webinars, we asked installers to submit their comments on the battery standard draft to the CEC. That way, we could see what you were thinking. The “cement sheet rule” wasn’t raised by installers as an issue, and this was taken into consideration in formulating our decision.

I understand it is hard for a lot of installers to take the focus off the day to day and read a draft standard. I would struggle to keep my eyes open when sitting down to read a draft standard after a day crawling around on roofs. However, if you are someone that cares about the outcomes, that was absolutely the time and place to make your opinion known so it could influence the outcome.

There will undoubtedly be other parts of the storage installation standard that are problematic, which we will discover as we start to roll it out. Of the 38 organisations that debated the various issues in it for five years, the ones who are happy with the outcome have their names printed on the inside cover. It’s not perfect, but we share the responsibility as members of the committee that writes the standards. When there are elements that need changing – and there will be – we discuss, debate and amend them. Together.

James Patterson is the technical support leader at the Clean Energy Council.