The benefits of utilizing renewable energy resources have captured the hearts and minds of many in recent years, especially as the effects of climate change are becoming more prevalent.
By generating electricity from clean sources, communities across the globe are able to:
And those are just a few of the advantages. Although the push towards renewable energy is largely positive, there are some challenges that need to be addressed if we are to maximize the potential of solar power and other green technologies like wind turbines. As the interest in alternative energy continues to rise, proper safety protocols and regulations should be at the forefront of industry leaders’ minds. This is especially important when it comes to fire protection, which is the greatest concern for solar panel development.
That being said, are there dangers with solar farms? In large part, solar farms are very safe—so long as best practices for reliable design, installation, and maintenance are followed.
However, just because the risk is low, that doesn’t mean there’s no risk at all. Solar farm fires do happen and can have devastating consequences without protective measures in place. Because we believe in the power and potential of solar technology, we’ve put together this guide to solar farm fire protection. Our goal is to provide greater insight into the risks and proper preventative and protective solutions associated with the use of solar technology.
In this guide we will answer the following:
Yes. With any electrical technology, there is a risk of fire. Poor quality equipment, faulty installation practices, improperly sealed mechanisms, compromised electrical wiring, and irregular maintenance can create conditions that lead to a fire. In addition to the aforementioned issues, solar farms come with their own unique environmental fire risks like:
A recent study states that most PV system fires begin in DC isolators, connectors, cables, and inverters, which are all located in the external electrical cabinets of a solar farm. In regards to inverters specifically, all electrical fires which start within the inverter can be traced back to a short, spark, or extreme heat buildup from electrical equipment inside. Causes may range from a destructive animal to heat-related deterioration. Additionally, much of the equipment gets very hot just from the nature of moving, inverting, transforming, and manipulating the high voltages.
So, what happens when a solar farm catches fire? Although solar farm fires are rare, they are extremely destructive. When one of these external electrical cabinets ignites, fires will rapidly spread, with the possibility of causing enormous financial and environmental damage including costly destruction of property and equipment, wildfires, and potential loss of life.
This is especially worrying for solar farms located in rural areas with no fire department or emergency response team nearby.
There are many steps a solar farm operation can take to help prevent solar farm fires. In this section, we will focus on the two most significant aspects of fire prevention:
A fire risk assessment (FRA) is the first step toward comprehensive fire protection and should be a top priority for all solar farm operations. FRAs are specifically designed to identify potential fire-related hazards and help operations decide on the best solutions for alleviating as many solar farm fire risks as possible.
Performing an accurate FRA benefits solar farms in many ways, including:
Although the benefits of FRAs are clear, very few solar farm operators use this methodology. This is due to many factors:
Even though some may deem FRAs unnecessary, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) encourages the development of a “fire protection design process” and a “fire risk control program” among other measures.
Ultimately, conducting an FRA gives solar farm operations the ability to analyze their risk data and consider the damages associated with solar fires. Oftentimes when the FRAs are completed, it becomes clear that the cost of fire suppression systems and other protective measures are minuscule compared to the substantial financial losses incurred by the destruction of a solar panel farm and its surrounding environment.
Solar codes and standards, along with international and national fire safety regulations for solar panels are critical when it comes to safely designing, installing, and using this technology. Adherence to established regulations and standards have proven time and time again to minimize the occurrence of fire incidents. However, problems occur when fire codes and other safety standards are ignored or mismanaged. Some of the most common solar photovoltaic (PV) code violations include:
It’s also worth noting that, in the past, many installers and inspectors had difficulty interpreting National Electrical Code (NEC) solar provisions. However, the NEC has continued to improve the clarity of their guidelines, making it much easier for both installers and inspectors to interpret. Just as solar farms themselves have come a long way, so too have solar codes and regulations.
In addition to NEC regulations, solar professionals need to be extremely knowledgeable about the guidelines established by the following institutions:
Organizations like the ones listed above work tirelessly to update their regulations in order to accommodate the ever-evolving nature of solar power. Acknowledging that states have differing regulations, we have chosen to conduct a broad overview of regulatory practices for the solar industry. Here are just a few examples of various fire codes and standards that have been established to reduce solar farm fires:
When it comes to solar fire prevention and protection measures, we must acknowledge that the word reduce is key here. Even with these protocols in place, there is still a risk for fire. So, what should be done when a blaze inevitably ignites? Below we will discuss how fire suppression successfully protects individuals, property, and solar equipment from flaming disaster.
Unfortunately, even with the best preventative measures in place, fires can never be completely engineered out of any electrical technology. But with a properly designed fire suppression system, the fire can be successfully eliminated while the live equipment is tripped offline. This trip system is able to extinguish the small origin fire, preventing it from spreading throughout the inverter and the solar farm’s surroundings. Let’s look at an example.
There are many concerns regarding solar panel safety for first responders when a fire occurs, the main one being the risk of electrical shock. During a fire event, the solar panels and associated wiring will still be active with live electrical current even when the panel has been turned off. This makes suppressing a fire extremely difficult and dangerous. Here are some additional challenges that first responders and contractors face when attempting to exterminate a solar panel fire:
Installing a fire suppression system safely isolates inverters, allowing the rest of the infrastructure of the solar farm to remain uncompromised. The right fire suppression technology has the ability to eliminate the risk of high voltage DC electrocution by shutting down the solar PV system inverter entirely.
This suppresses the fire immediately and eliminates risk for first responders and electrical contractors, allowing them to safely investigate and work the active fire scene without fear of electrocution and other dangers. In addition to creating safer conditions for first responders, this technology can stop solar farm fires from spreading out of control, and damaging surrounding areas.
The fact that “fires can and will happen” remains a common refrain when discussing any high-powered electrical applications. As the popularity of solar technology continues to grow, fire incidents big and small have drastically increased awareness of the safety aspect of PV systems. This has created a sense of urgency within the solar industry. Although risks will always persist, great strides have been made to continually improve the safety of solar panels.
Ultimately, exploring fire suppression and other protective options for PV systems plays a fundamental role in the acceptance and continued spread of solar technology. To learn more about clean energy fire protection, read a few of our case studies and reports.