New fire safety rule could extinguish Singapore's solar sector


March 20, 2015

The city-state's solar companies are upset about an upcoming government regulation on fire safety which they say is excessive and will seriously dent the country's ability to grow its solar sector even as other public agencies are promoting it.

Singapore's solar companies are up in arms about an upcoming government regulation which they say will sound the death knell for a sector that's only starting to take off.

Industry sources told Eco-Business that the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) is planning to issue a fire-safety regulation which will require exit staircases to be provided for all rooftop solar photovoltaic (PV) installations, along with building plan submissions.

This will effectively make solar projects unattractive and too costly to adopt, as it will increase the investment, paperwork and approvals needed due to more contractors, architects and various inspectors getting involved.

Managing director of local firm SolarGy, Albert Lim, said: "This is too excessive and will effectively kill the industry and put off owners wanting to use solar, as the impact of introducing a staircase to a solar project will make it unfeasible."

Currently, many solar installations are built on the rooftops of buildings to capture the maximum sunshine. However, most of the buildings in Singapore are already built to the maximum space allowed by current building codes and it is likely that staircases cannot be accommodated for many of these buildings, Lim said.

When contacted, SCDF confirmed that it is planning to issue a circular to the industry next month, which will make it compulsory for new solar PV installations to meet proposed fire safety requirements, which includes the provision of exit staircases, among others.

SCDF said this will only apply to new solar PV projects and will take effect from the date of issuance. It will not apply to existing solar projects which are already completed.

In addition, the approval for ongoing solar projects would be granted on condition that the installations comply with the fire safety requirements within 6 months from the effective date of the new regulation.

SCDF said the requirements were formulated in consultation with industry players, associations and government agencies since July last year.

"The feedback gathered from these engagements have been thoroughly deliberated before the proposed set of fire safety requirements were formulated," an SCDF spokesman told Eco-Business.

"This is too excessive and will effectively kill the industry and put off owners wanting to use solar, as the impact of introducing a staircase to a solar project will make it unfeasible." Albert Lim, SolarGy managing director

Huge setback for Singapore solar
Industry experts say, however, that this latest development is a huge setback for Singapore's nascent solar sector and the country's efforts to diversify its energy sources.

Even though the city-state enjoys relatively sunny skies all year round, the solar sector has taken off only in recent years after decades of dormancy thanks to a drop in solar panel prices, which helped it to achieve grid parity, and a shift in government policy to actively encourage the adoption of solar as a cleaner energy source.

Grid parity means that the cost of generating solar energy is competitive with the cost of fossil fuel-derived electricty provided by the national utility, even without subsidies.

Globally, both the public and private sector are investing huge amounts into renewable energy, especially solar, as a way to increase their energy security and reduce carbon emissions.

Singapore's public agencies have announced initiatives to promote solar energy in recent years. One example is the SolarNova Programme, an initiative led by the Economic Development Board (EDB) that aims to boost solar technology in Singapore by getting public agencies to procure PV installations across government buildings and spaces.

The Housing and Development Board (HDB) separately announced in 2013 a large solar leasing tender which called for PV panels to be installed on 125 housing blocks across the island, producing 5MW of electricity.

Just this week, Oslo-listed Renewable Energy Corporation (REC) and Singapore's PacificLight Energy (PLE) launched the country's first commercial solar tariff to commercial and industrial users.

Singapore generates 95 per cent of its power from natural gas and currently has only 25 to 30 megawatt-peak (MWp) of photovoltaic capacity installed.

A recent white paper by the Sustainable Energy Association of Singapore (SEAS) prediced that Singapore's PV installed capacity will reach 2GWp (gigawatt peak) of PV installations – or about 5 per cent of the nation's forecasted electricity demand – by 2025.

All this is set to change with the latest regulation.

Solar leasing firm Solar Horizon chief executive officer Samridh Goyal said the measures will stifle the industry by making solar adoption economically unviable.

"This seems counter-intuitive to the efforts of other government agencies who have been trying to boost the local solar industry, especially those who operate with the solar leasing model," he said.

Under this model, solar companies design and install solar projects for their clients, who – apart from not needing to foot the upfront bill – only pay an initial deposit and monthly lease fee based on their energy usage. The solar firm also bears the installation, maintenance and repair costs for their systems.

SolarGy's Lim estimates the additional cost of an exit staircase, at $30,000 to $50,000 for an average 15-metre tall building, will make solar leasing unfeasible and put many companies out of business.

Frank Phuan, director at Singapore's largest solar leasing company Sunseap, said he hopes SCDF can re-consider its regulation.

The firm made headlines last year when it received $50 million in funding from investment banking firm Goldman Sachs to expand its operations. The news was taken as a sign that the local solar industry was finally making headway.

Solar panels and fire safety
Phuan acknowledged that SCDF had met with many companies in the industry prior to deciding on the regulation, but said that more consultation was needed.

He added that he understood there was a need for fire safety regulation and to standardise it due to the increased volume of solar PV systems in Singapore. However, the approach taken is a "blanket" one that is too conservative.

He suggested categorising solar systems so specific requirements can be catered to their needs, saying that the current approach felt like "one step forward, two steps back" for the industry.

Lim said that the occurences of fire due to solar panels is extremely rare, and that no other country has imposed staircases on solar installations in fire safety codes.

In a 2013 study, the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE in Germany found that out of 1.3 million PV systems, there were 350 fires in which photovoltaic systems were involved over the last 20 years. In 120 of these cases, the photovoltaic system was the cause of the fire – that is, 0.009 per cent.

In their response, SCDF said that in drafting the proposed guidelines, it made reference to fire safety requirements already in force in countries such the United States, Europe and Australia.

It added that its requirements are the "minimum fire safety standard which are considered essential" to ensure that the potential spread of fire is minimized and that the lives of fire-fighers and in-house security personnel are safe-guarded.

"Notwithstanding this, the SCDF is prepared to meet the solar industry players to further explain our stand and clarify any additional concerns that they may have," said the spokesman.

Lim said the solar industry is now considering a petition and will continue to speak to SCDF.

"This is of grave concern to us. It will certainly stifle the solar industry here, which was only just beginning to see the light," he said.

Article published by: Eco-Business, Jessica Cheam