Balancing Consumer Protection & Industry Regulation: Five Trends in PV Codes and Standards  

Codes and standards don’t sound particularly sexy. But they are important consumer protections both for safety and quality of solar PV installations. There are literally hundreds of PV related codes and standards developed by many different code and standard development organizations. The challenge is to balance consumer protection with an appropriate level of industry regulation.

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Here are five of today’s top trends in PV codes and standards. Working to advance these trends, and the codes or standards that shape them, are many individuals and organizations, including the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC).

  1. Allow smart inverters to support the electrical grid. Current inverter standards were created when solar penetrations were very low. The inverters were designed to disconnect from the grid whenever the grid was abnormal. As solar penetrations increase, inverters need to be designed so they support the grid (voltage and other functions). This is technically possible today, but the standards are not written for these functions. Therefore standards, including IEEE 1547 and UL 1741 need to be revised. Many people are working to implement these changes.
  1. Protect fire fighters’ safety when fighting fires on buildings with PV. Fire fighters are concerned how to safely fight fires on buildings with PV installations.   Fire firefighters need training and the solar industry and fire fighters need to collaborate more to develop solar installations that protect their safety. One contentious issue has to do with how to quickly shut down a PV system and what voltage level is allowed in the PV system after it is shut down. The 2014 version of the National Electrical Code (NEC) introduced a rapid shutdown requirement for the first time. The requirement will likely be changed and strengthened in the 2017 version of the NEC. The 2012 fire codes introduced requirements to help firefighters identify PV systems, protect electrical wiring, and safely access roofs for vertical ventilation operations during fire suppression activities.   These codes are being adopted in more places across the country and are important to fire fighter safety.
  1. Make buildings have the same resistance to fire as before PV was installed. PV modules have long carried a fire classification rating similar to such ratings for roof assemblies. Research funded by Solar ABCs showed that the old fire classification rating for PV systems was not a good indicator of fire performance. Therefore a new fire classification test was developed and in 2013 was incorporated into the UL 1703 standard. The new fire classification test became part of the building code in California on January 1, 2015. Manufacturers must test their products to the new standard and building officials must understand how to enforce it. This is a massive job to make this change in a way that does not disrupt the market in the state with the largest PV market. Continued work is underway to revise and clarify the standard and to develop methods to make the testing requirements simpler.
  1. Make sure codes do not inhibit introduction on new technologies such as storage. Codes often include prescriptive requirements, which can make introduction of new technologies difficult. The 2017 NEC under development today will not be adopted in many states until 2019 or later. This slow development and implementation cycle means that stakeholders must anticipate new technology trends such as the use of storage to make sure that codes do not preclude good installations.
  1. Continue to develop the NEC PV sections into a mature code. The National Electrical Code is revised every three years. Over the past several cycles, a huge amount of time has gone into revising and improving the code so it is easier to understand and provides real safety assurances. This process needs to continue so a mature code provides these assurances. 

Larry Sherwood is the administrator of the Solar Board for Codes and Standards (Solar ABCs) and Vice President and COO of IREC. You can learn more about these and other codes and standard issues at the Solar ABCs web site (www.solarabcs.org) and by subscribing to the Solar ABCs Newsletter

Image: Solar Energyg International

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