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By Moneyweb

Moneyweb: Journalists

No more solar panels on asbestos roofs, says labour department

But even with roof replacements, the cost of solar may still be attractive.

Building owners can forget about reducing their dependence on Eskom by installing solar panels on their roofs if those roofs are made of asbestos.

The only way around this is to first replace the roof.

This follows the Department of Employment and Labour issuing a letter “to clarify any confusion and non-standardisation around the installation of solar panels or ‘over-roofing’ sheets onto existing asbestos roof sheets”.

The department regulates health and safety in the workplace and published extensive regulations about the handling and monitoring of asbestos in 2020 to mitigate the risk that it poses to workers’ health.

High pressure cleaning and work with power tools like angle grinders, for example, are banned. The little that is allowed must be done under strict supervision, with continuous monitoring of air quality.

“The drilling into asbestos cement roof sheets at any speed may release fibres and will be increasing the surface area of the asbestos material causing asbestos dust,” says the department in its letter.

“Replacing screws or even using existing screw-holes will cause risk of abasing the asbestos roof sheets and release fibres during the process of installation [of solar panels] and afterwards.

“Although processes could well be controlled during installation, after installation the client’s employees are still left with the asbestos material in place, but now with a greater surface area for asbestos fibre release, possible damage to the sheets that [were] worked on, and a greater possibility for abrasion of the asbestos materials due to the slightest movement.”

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The department says such an installation will make it difficult to inspect the asbestos roof, or prevent its inspection entirely.

Its inspectors have been instructed not to allow work aimed at the installation of any panels or plates on existing asbestos roofs.

Decision ‘flies in the face’ of renewable energy goals

Eric Putsman, founder and MD of PV Consult, says he seriously objects to this instruction by the department.

His company installs solar panels in Cape Town and says many government schools and old age homes in the Western Cape have asbestos roofs, as do 30-40% of all industrial buildings.

“Many of them are currently considering solar panels to mitigate load shedding and save cost.”

Putsman says that until 9 November, when the letter was sent, “the issues around asbestos were very clear and sensible, ie whilst replacement is desirable, where the roof is certified by an accredited body, if in good condition, then it was allowed to install solar panels”.

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He explains that no drilling or cutting or cleaning was allowed, but specialised companies could – under strict guidance from certified companies – remove an old pin, encapsulate and replace it with a new extended pin, and then build a frame above, allowing solar to be installed in a safe and controlled manner, with minimal extra cost.

“In the process the whole roof is encapsulated to prevent the spread of asbestos fibres due to weathering,” says Putsman.

He adds that the department’s decision will impact a large number of projects already underway, especially at government schools and old age homes.

“The effect will be widespread across multiple projects within the renewable industry. It flies in the face of the implementation of renewable energy.”

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“The cost to replace a roof is exorbitant, with no direct benefit,” says Putsman.

“It is impossible for the majority of sites to contemplate or justify – these sites all wish to install solar to save on energy costs and reduce the impact of load shedding.”

He adds that of the buildings in the industrial areas of Epping and Parow where the necessary certification has already been obtained and funds made available for solar installations, at least half have asbestos roofs.

Legal perspective

Willem le Roux, an attorney with ENSafrica who specialises in matters pertaining to health and safety regulations, says there are different kinds of asbestos.

“If someone breathes in even a single fibre, it may lead to lung cancer, but asbestos does not cause physical damage unless it is being disturbed.

“It is only dangerous when it is cut, drilled into or disturbed in some other way.”

He adds that the asbestos abatement regulations that regulate asbestos provide for extensive rules that prescribe how different types of asbestos work should be done.

“There is therefore no total ban on all work with asbestos,” says Le Roux.

He is of the opinion that stakeholders try to engage the department and explain how they mitigate against the health risks.

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If that does not bear fruit, they can lodge an appeal with the chief inspector, and if necessary take the decision or appeal on review in the Labour Court.

Industry view

Frank Spencer, spokesperson of the South African Photovoltaic Industry Association (Sapvia), says that as a general principle, health and safety has to come first, whether it is electrical or otherwise.

“Asbestos is an extremely unsafe material, and as a general principle I know many solar PV installers would not go near it,” he says.

Sapvia expects the ban to have very little impact on the industry.

“Many installers will not go near asbestos roofs and considering most asbestos roofs are nearing end of life, it generally does not make sense to put a 25-year+ asset on a roof that will need to be replaced in the next five to 10 years,” says Spencer.

He adds that if Sapvia is approached by members to act in a particular way, it might take more formal steps to poll its members on this matter.

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“Sapvia advises owners of buildings with asbestos roofs who were planning to install solar panels that the adoption of solar PV presents a unique opportunity to also replace the roofs that would need such replacement in the short term anyway,” says Spencer.

“A number of solar PV installers who provide finance for the solar PV will also finance the new roof,” he adds.

“Even with the additional new roofing costs, the solar PV project can still be attractive.”

This article originally appeared on Moneyweb and was republished with permission. Read the original article here.

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