Recently solar panels have been back in Australian headlines after the release of statistics from Fire & Rescue New South Wales (FRNSW) showed a significant increase in solar-panel-system fires. These statistics reported that there has been a five-fold surge in solar-panel fires over the past five years including a 20% increase in 2020 alone.
Coincidently it was five years ago that our company PVStop International started presenting Solar Photo-Voltaic (PV) risks as a topic to fire service agencies. We offered insights into the various risks and predicted that solar-panel fires would escalate in parallel with the growing number of solar PV installations.
Our predictions have now been validated; the risks associated with solar panels and the ‘DC Danger Zone’ have indeed grown alongside the increasing number of solar-panel installations across Australia, which are now at over 2.4 million and climbing. One in five households now feature solar-panel installations and this is forecast to reach one in two households over the next ten years.
PVStop International have developed the only ISO-accredited solution on the market that de-energises solar panels at the source, mitigating these risks and we now supply our solution to fire services and asset owners across the globe.
Why are solar panels a risk?
As long as solar panels are exposed to light, they continue to produce potentially lethal amounts of DC electricity, in industry terms this is known as the ‘DC Danger Zone’. Up until recently there has been no safe or reliable way to isolate the power produced by solar PV systems at the source, the solar panels themselves. In emergency situations such as fires, floods or storms first responders have needed to adopt ‘defensive’ strategies due to the risks associated with live DC electricity. This can place lives at risk and significantly increase the likelihood of major property damage.
Quality and age of PV installations
The overall quality of newer PV installations is improving, and this can be attributed to a number of factors including improvements in technology, better regulation, improved training and knowledge, all the hallmarks of an industry that is maturing as renewables become a mainstream source of energy.
However, the number of incidents involving solar panels will continue to increase simply as a result of probabilities. Ten years ago there were approximately 100,000 solar PV installations across Australia, now there are over 2.4 million, there are 24 times more PV systems in the community than there were a decade ago, which means there will be more (and an increasing number of) incidents involving PV systems. Compounding the issue is the fact that as PV systems get older, they deteriorate due to constant exposure to the elements. Most owners do not get their PV systems serviced regularly; it is often a case of ‘out of sight out of mind’. Even good-quality PV systems will deteriorate over time if they are not checked and serviced regularly. Given that a significant number of the PV installations are now many years old, there will be a growing number of incidents due to these aging and deteriorating systems.
What the statistics are missing
What the statistics don’t show is that for every fire caused by solar panels, there are a much higher number of incidents where solar panels are not the cause of the incident but become involved as a consequence of an unrelated ignition source. Currently none of the available statistics accurately capture this type of incident data.
It is difficult to locate statistics about fire-related incidents in Australian states and territories, and even more challenging to find statistics that can be compared in a meaningful way. However, there is no doubt that the true statistics on incidents involving solar panels are significantly under-reported and the true costs in terms of property damage, revenue loss and WHS liabilities for PCBU’s is yet to be determined and accurately measured.
Solar panels and climate change
Another factor that has not been widely recognised regarding solar-panel risk is the impact of climate change. Whether it is bushfires, floods or the impact of violent storm events including falling branches or hail, awareness of the safety implications these factors have upon solar-panel systems is unacknowledged and in most jurisdictions remains poorly managed.
As long as solar panels are exposed to light, they are producing potentially lethal amounts of DC electricity, even if damaged, solar panels will continue to produce power. If damaged in bushfires, solar panels have the potential to arc and create secondary fires days, weeks or possibly months after they are damaged. Similarly for storm damaged solar panels, if fallen branches or hailstones crack or shatter the glass on the panels, ‘hotspots’ are created that over time can lead to electrical arcs and fires. One notable incident was the Tacca Plastics fire in Moorebank, which occurred during December 2018. Solar panels damaged by a hailstorm ignited and created a significant roof top fire three days after the hailstorm damage occurred.
Floods have the potential to submerge solar panel inverters and electrify the water surrounding the damaged structure. Such incidents were reported in the Townsville floods in 2019.
Solar panel safety opportunities
The good news is that Fire and Emergency Services Agencies are recognising the risks associated with solar panels and are starting to take measures to improve their operational capabilities. FRNSW are currently trialling PVStop in Sydney, Australia as a risk-mitigation tool for incidents featuring solar-panel systems. ACT Fire & Rescue, who provide fire protection for Canberra, the Australian capital, already carry PVStop on their vehicles as do the Northern Territory Fire & Rescue Service who carry the product in Darwin and Alice Springs.
PVStop is an award-winning, ISO-accredited polymer film technology that is applied to solar panels like a ‘liquid tarpaulin’ blocking the light and isolating the solar-panel system in seconds, rendering the PV system electrically safe. It has been independently verified as effective in reducing DC current to safe levels once solar panels have 40% coverage, it is tested to be non-toxic and poses no risk to the environment, having been tested by the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) New South Wales.
PVStop is an Australian innovation that is not just gaining traction in Australia as a critical safety solution but has already gained international acceptance and is now utilised by the world’s largest fire and emergency services agencies including the London Fire Brigade (LFB), the New York Fire Department (FDNY) as well as a host of other international fire and emergency services agencies.
PVStop is effective for salvage and overhaul operations as well. In South Australia, the South Australian Fire and Emergency Services Commission, on behalf of the Emergency Service Sector agencies, is establishing a panel of qualified and experienced Clean Energy Council accredited solar installers. These installers can respond during emergency incidents to assist in making affected properties with solar-power systems and/or batteries safe before handing the property over to the owner/responsible representative.
Better procedures and data
The Clean Energy Regulator (CER) have been conducting random inspections on small-scale renewable energy systems since 2011. In that time inspectors have completed over 28,000 inspections and identified that over the life of the programme, 3.26% of the systems have been rated as ‘unsafe’ and 17.85% of the systems have been rated as ‘substandard’. If you extrapolate these percentages against the 2.4 million installations across Australia, the potential risks are both obvious and of cause for great concern. Australia is one of the few countries in the world who have had the foresight to implement such an auditing programme and being aware of the problem is the first step towards improving safety. The CER provide this data to the system owners, installers, the Clean Energy Council and the relevant State or Territory regulators who can then take appropriate action and work together to review standards and improve the quality of future installations.
The Australasian Fire & Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC) are currently updating their Operational Guidelines for Photovoltaic Arrays and Energy Storage Systems, which will supersede the original Safety Considerations For Photovoltaic Arrays Guideline that was released in 2013. AFAC are also making improvements to the Australian Incident Reporting System (AIRS) to improve the quality of data available about incidents involving solar PV systems and energy storage systems.
Future steps to improve safety
The tools, procedures and stakeholder cooperation outlined above are good first steps in improving awareness of the issues. However, it is still early days and a lot more needs to be done to improve education and awareness of the risks associated with Solar PV and energy storage systems, not just for first responders but also for system owners and the broader community.
Regularly we see opinion-based decisions driving policy due to the limited qualified data available, which hinders effective decision making and good policy development. In order to develop appropriate strategies for new technology and emerging risks now and into the future, stakeholders need to invest resources into the following;
- More and better-quality data.
- Investment in education and training.
- Greater cooperation and engagement between government agencies, industry and community stakeholders.
- Greater support of innovation.
Learning from the lessons of the past
Solar PV systems are no longer an emerging technology; they are a mainstream energy source and recent history shows us that safety is lagging well behind the exponential growth of the industry.
Energy storage systems, electric vehicles, EV charging stations and built-In photovoltaics represent the latest developments in new technology, technology which is upon us now. They represent a new and exciting industrial revolution, but they also represent significant safety risks for first responders, system owners and broader society.
The future requires effective leadership that is innovative, forward thinking and can navigate bureaucracy to reach effective strategic outcomes. If we focus on effective safety objectives, the future will be bright, clean and safe; if we continue to operate in the status quo, history will repeat and we will continue to walk headlong into unanticipated risks.
For more information, go to www.pvstop.com.au