Solar Electricity Handbook 2011: A Simple Practical Guide to Solar Energy - Designing and Installing Photovoltaic Solar Electric Systems - Michael Boxwell (2011)

Planning, regulations and approvals

Depending on where you live around the world, there are different planning requirements, regulations and approvals needed for installing a solar energy system. Some countries have little or no regulation in place; other countries have extremely tight regulations. In some countries, the regulations change from one region to another.

Consequently, it is impossible to provide every bit of relevant information here. Instead, we provide much of this information on You will also be able to find information from your local planning authority and electricity providers.

Wherever you live around the world, there is a simple mantra for dealing with authority when it comes to building and electrical regulations and approvals: if in doubt, ask. Ignorance is never an excuse.

In the case of a solar installation, the people you need to speak to are your local planning office, your buildings insurance provider and, if you are building a grid-tie system, your local electricity company. Not only will they be able to help ensure you do not fall foul of any regulation; you will often find they are a helpful and useful source of information in their own right.

National and international standards for solar components

In the United States, Canada, Australia and across Europe, solar panels and inverters must comply with specific standards in order to be used in a grid-tie system. The units are tested to ensure that they conform to these standards before they are allowed on sale.

Across Europe, solar panels have to be certified to IEC safety standard IEC 61730 and performance standards IEC 61215 or IEC 61646. Solar grid-tie inverters have to conform to IEC 62109. Some European countries have additional certification. In Germany, grid-tie inverters must have a VDE126 certification, whilst in the United Kingdom, grid tie inverters that produce fewer than 16 amps of peak power (3.6kW) must have G83/1 certification, and larger inverters require the much more complicated G59/1 certification. Also in the United Kingdom, solar panels and inverters have to be certified by the Micro generation Certificate Scheme (MCS) in order to be eligible for feed-in tariffs and other financial incentives.

In the United States, solar panels, solar cables and inverters have to have UL certification. Solar panels must conform to the UL 1703 standard. Grid-tie inverters must conform to UL 1741 and solar cabling must conform to UL 4703 or UL 854 (USE-2). If you are using batteries in your design, the batteries must conform to either UL 1989, UL 2054, UL-SU 2580 or UL-SU 1973.

In Canada, solar panels must conform to safety standard ULC/ORD-C1703-1 and design standards CAN/CSA C61215-08 or CAN/CSA C61646-2, whilst grid-tie inverters must conform to CSA C22.2 No. 107.1. Batteries must conform to CAN/CSA F382-M89 (R2004).

In Australia, solar panels must conform to AS/NZS5033, whilst grid-tie inverters must conform to AS4777. If you are planning a stand-alone system in a building, your system must also conform to AS4509. If you are planning a mobile system, for instance in a caravan or recreational vehicle, your system must conform to AS3001.

It is worth noting that, in all of these regions, no differentiation is made between grid-tie solar and stand-alone systems for component selection. If you are building a solar energy system that is to be fitted to a building, your system must use certified components in order to comply with building and electrical safety regulations in these regions.

If you use non-approved equipment in a grid-tie system in these countries, you will not be allowed to connect your system to the grid. You are also likely to be in contravention of building regulations and may invalidate your buildings insurance.

Installation regulations

In many countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and throughout most of the European Union, you cannot work on building electrics unless you are a qualified electrician. Some countries allow you to work on electrics, but your work has to be checked and certified by a qualified electrician before commissioning.

In the main, low-voltage DC circuits are excluded from this legislation, but it is worth ensuring that this is the case in your region.

In many countries, there are additional qualifications for electricians that allow them to install and certify solar energy systems. In most countries, it is not yet a legal requirement to have additional training in order to install photovoltaic systems.

However, if you wish to get access to government subsidies, feed-in tariffs or renewable energy certificates, you will almost certainly need to have your system installed, or at least checked, tested and certified, by qualified solar installation specialists. This is certainly the case in the United Kingdom and Australia. In the United States, subsidies vary from state to state, and often from county to county.

Getting your electricity supplier involved

If you are planning a grid-tie system, it is worth getting your electricity supplier involved in your project earlier rather than later. Sometimes they have their own requirements or lists of approved equipment. They often have specialists you can speak to, who can give you extra advice and support.

In most parts of the world, your electricity company will usually need to be involved while your system is being installed, replacing your current electricity meter with a specific import/export meter and carrying out the final inspection before approving your system.

Some electricity companies will only accept feed-in connections from professional solar PV installers. Almost all electricity providers insist that the installation is inspected and signed off, either by a certified solar installer or by one of their own inspectors, before they will accept your connection onto the grid.

Solar grants and selling your power

Around the world, governments are encouraging the take-up of solar energy. Financial assistance comes through various different schemes, and researching what is available can be confusing and time-consuming.

The different types of schemes that are offered in different places are described in more detail below. The specific schemes for grants and the amount of money you can receive for installing solar power and selling your electricity vary from country to country, and often from county to county. Many countries are currently reviewing their schemes, which means that information that is current one month will be out of date the next.

The Solar Electricity Handbook website has information on specific financial incentive schemes for various countries, as this can be kept more up-to-date than the book.

General information about grants, tax credits and feed-in tariffs

Whilst some schemes are flexible over who is allowed to install your solar energy system, most schemes work in conjunction with a governing body that insists that your system is installed by one of their members.

In some cases, individuals have been able to get their system signed off by a solar energy company in order to claim the financial incentives. However, this is often at the discretion of the solar installers, and many will refuse outright.

In general, financial incentives are being offered through four different mechanisms:

·       Feed-in tariffs

·       Tax credits

·       Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs)

·       Remote installation allowances

Feed-in tariffs

If you have a grid-tie solar energy system, you can often sell your power back to the electricity companies. This is done through a feed-in tariff, where the electricity providers agree to buy your surplus power at an agreed rate.

In some countries, feed-in tariffs are set by the electricity companies and can vary throughout the day, depending on supply and demand. In other countries, feed-in tariffs are fixed by the government, often at a premium rate in order to compensate solar owners for the up-front cost of installing their systems.

In many cases, the government guarantees the value of feed-in tariffs for a minimum number of years, thereby guaranteeing that owners make a return on their investments. A common theme with governments is to set a very high value for feed-in tariffs initially and then to reduce the feed-in tariff values for new customers significantly after two years. This has happened in Spain, Portugal, Germany, Hong Kong and now the United Kingdom. The message is this: if you are offered guaranteed long-term feed-in tariffs at a very good and guaranteed rate of return, take up the offer: the scheme is unlikely to remain available for more than two years.

Tax credits

A second option for compensating solar energy owners is a tax credit scheme where all or part of the installation cost of a solar energy system may be offset against tax. In some countries, these schemes are only available to businesses; in others they are available to individuals as well.

With a tax credit, you pay for the installation up front, but then receive part or all of the money back through tax credits over one, two or three years.

The United States of America are currently offering tax credits for people installing solar energy systems through the Federal Tax Credits for Consumer Energy Efficiency scheme. There are additional tax credits available in some states and counties.

Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs)

Renewable Energy Certificates are tradable certificates that prove that a certain amount of energy was generated from renewable sources. These certificates can be bought and sold on the open market. Whoever owns the certificate can claim to have bought electricity from a renewable resource.

There are two markets for buying renewable energy certificates:

·       The voluntary sector – where individuals and companies elect to buy green electricity and pay a premium to do so

·       The electricity providers themselves, who are mandated by governments to provide a certain percentage of their electricity from green sources

In some countries, individuals and small businesses who install solar energy systems are eligible to receive renewable energy certificates for the energy they produce. In many cases, renewable energy certificates are available for both grid-tie and stand-alone systems.

In some countries, governments have encouraged the take-up of small-scale solar by providing a multiplier for small solar generators. Under these schemes, solar energy owners can receive two, three or even five times the number of renewable energy certificates for the energy they produce, ensuring that owners can earn money from their small-scale solar energy systems.

Renewable energy certificates are also known as Green Tags in the United States and Tradable Renewable Certificates (TRCs) in South Africa and New Zealand.

Remote installation allowances

Remote installation allowances are offered in a few countries. They tend to be available for individuals and businesses with premises in remote areas, where the cost of connecting these buildings to the grid is very high.

By their very nature, these systems are stand-alone, off-grid applications. A good example of the sort of scheme on offer is the Australian model that provides credits for people installing solar where the cost of connecting their premises to the grid is greater than AUS $30,000, or the distance between the premises and the grid is greater than 1 km.

How much money is available, and how it is paid, varies from one scheme to another. In Australia, the remote installation allowance is offered by multiplying the number of renewable energy certificates that owners can receive for their system.

In conclusion

·       There are different rules and regulations for installing solar power depending on where you live

·       You have to comply with the building regulations and electrical regulations that are in force in your region

·       You will be able to find help by talking to your local planning office and your electricity provider. You will also need to talk to your building insurance company

·       There are many national and international standards for solar energy systems, covering both the actual physical hardware and how it is installed

·       In many places around the world there are financial incentives available for solar energy providers. These schemes vary, but tend to fall into four camps: feed-in tariffs, tax credits, renewable energy certificates and remote installation allowances

·       What incentives are available, and their value, changes regularly. Check the website for up-to-date information