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:

  • Dramatically reduce their carbon footprint
  • Increase access to clean and affordable energy for all populations
  • Diversify their energy supply
  • Reduce dependence on imported fuels
  • Encourage economic growth and job creation
  • Lessen air pollution

And those are just a few of the advantages. Although the push towards renewables 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:

  1. Can solar farms cause fires?
  2. What are the proper fire safety protocols for solar farms?
  3. What happens when a solar farm causes a fire?
  4. What technology can be used to prevent a blaze from getting out of control?

Can Solar Energy Cause Fires?

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:

  • Hot and sunny environments
  • Foundation failures
  • Buildup of debris
  • Frost heave
  • Flooding and humidity
  • Damage to inverters from animals and other natural elements

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.

solar-farm-diagram

So, what happens when a solar farm catches on 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.

What Safety Measures Must You Consider When Working With Solar Panels? 

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:

  1. Conducting fire risk assessments
  2. Following established solar codes, regulations, and standards

Using a Solar Farm Fire Risk Assessment

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:

  • Reducing the risk of injuries to personnel
  • Avoiding fatalities
  • Limiting damage to assets
  • Saving on costs incurred due to destruction caused by a fire
  • Potentially reducing the amount your business pays for insurance
  • Boosting the reputation of your company from an operations perspective
  • Limiting the risk of wildfires spreading throughout the surrounding area

Although the benefits of FRAs are clear, very few solar farm operators use this methodology. This is due to many factors:

  1. There is no requirement to conduct an FRA.
  2. Third-party independent service providers do not include FRAs in their scope of services.
  3. Some solar operations believe that insurance is enough protection.
  4. Many solar operations are still feeling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning their funds and resources are limited.

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.

Following All Established Regulations and Safety Best Practices

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:

  • Improper enclosure and conduit grounding
  • Improper conductors
  • Incorrect module grounding (using module grounding for dissimilar metals or using a dry location lug in a wet location)

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:

  • IFC Fire Code for Solar Panels: Section 1205 of the IFC’s fire code documentation specifically focuses on PV power systems. This section of codes describes regulations for both roof-mounted and ground-mounted solar panels and addresses fire safety protocols for the installation, operation, maintenance, repair, retrofitting, testing, commissioning, and decommissioning of these systems. You can read the full IFC 2021 guidelines for solar panels here.
  • NFPA Standards For Solar: The NFPA 855 standard outlines the requirements for mitigating potential fire risks for solar panels and other stationary energy storage systems (ESS) in the US. As a vital resource for all stakeholders, NFPA 855 provides insight into the handling of potential dangers such as toxic and flammable gasses, stranded energy, and increased fire intensity associated with ESS systems. The purpose of these guidelines is to provide solar professionals and first responders with the information they need to safely design, install, inspect, and extinguish solar equipment. You can read the full NFPA 855 edition for 2023 here.
  • NEC Code for Solar Installation: The National Electrical Code (NEC) guidelines are part of the NFPA’s regulations and are another name for NFPA 70. All solar PV systems in the US should be installed in accordance with NFPA 70/NEC guidelines. NFPA 70 has been accepted in all 50 states as the “benchmark for safe electrical design, installation, and inspection to protect people and property from electrical hazards.” Within the NFPA 70 documentation there are two codes that explain best practices for the installation of solar panels—NEC 690 and NEC 705. The NEC 690 code applies to solar electric systems, while NEC 705 applies to interconnected electrical power production. To learn more about NFPA 70 and all related codes, visit the NFPA site here.
  • IBC Codes for Solar: There are various International Building Code (IBC) regulations for solar equipment that outline specific requirements for the design, materials, construction, and overall quality of rooftop solar panels. These guidelines are especially important to review when installing solar panels onto an already existing building. Learn more about the specific solar IBC codes here.
  • Structural Engineering Codes for Solar: In addition to the IBC standards, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) also has a set of guidelines titled ASCE/SEI 7-16. These guidelines were created to help structural engineers, architects, and building code officials determine design loads for general structural design while factoring in environmental events. The ASCE/SEI 7-16 regulations have a direct impact on solar projects, especially when it comes to installation practices. For example, the ASCE/SEI 7-16 guidelines include rules for buildings with roofs over 60 feet high which had previously been exempted from using solar technology. They also include new wind maps with granular details of the United States. Read the full ASCE/SEI 7-16 regulations here.
  • Underwriters Laboratories (UL): Before PV modules are installed, they are tested by UL which subjects each system to various scenarios that mimic everyday wear and tear before they are certified. This helps identify any potential issues with the panels themselves, but it cannot account for installation mistakes or unforeseen damages.

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.

How Do You Extinguish a Solar Farm Fire?

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.

Fire Suppression and Firefighter Strategies for Photovoltaic Energy Systems

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:

  • When a solar PV system is exposed to light, it cannot be completely switched off. Additionally, solar panels and the wiring for isolation switches remain live even in the event of a shutdown.
  • PV solar systems run on DC electric currents exclusively. Different from AC electricity, DC electricity does not possess a frequency, and its presence and amplitude are difficult to detect. This makes DC much more unpredictable and dangerous than AC electrical sources, especially in the case of a fire.
  • Solar PV systems will continue to produce dangerous levels of DC electricity, even if isolation switches are installed.

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.

Protecting the Reputation of Solar Power

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, especially since solar prices and the solar supply chain are a current challenge. 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.

Download Report: Hidden Danger - Solar Farm Fire Risk