Walmart made national news last week when the giant retailer filed a lawsuit against tech company and solar installer Tesla. The complaint said that due to “widespread system neglect,” solar panels installed by Tesla and by SolarCity, which Tesla acquired in 2016, started fires atop seven Walmart warehouses between 2012 and 2018.
“The Walmart suit alleges breach of contract, gross negligence and failure to live up to industry standards. Walmart is asking Tesla to remove solar panels from more than 240 Walmart locations where they have been installed, and to pay damages related to all the fires Walmart says that Tesla caused,” according to CNBC.
Recently Amazon also claimed that in an “isolated incident” at one of the company’s locations in 2018, solar panels installed by Tesla did catch fire.
With millions of solar arrays installed across the United States, it’s important to understand that this case is not about solar technology or the industry as a whole, but is instead specifically about one solar company, Tesla, and their alleged negligence.
Of course, neither our company nor anyone outside of the companies involved can comment on the validity of Walmart’s complaints. However, we can share some thoughts on solar installation in general, both from industry experts and from our own experience.
To start with, Dan Whitten with the Solar Energy Industries Association told the New York Times that “while there is a small risk associated with any electrical equipment, our industry has performed more than two million installations in the U.S. and has heard of very few cases where fires have occurred.”
Further, according to Solar Reviews:
A 2017 report by NREL, for instance, found that only 5 out of 10,000 solar panels developed faults – that is just 0.05 percent. And those are faults of any kind – panels that actually catch on fire would likely be an even tinier percentage of that tiny percentage.
Compare these figures with the fact that 2.9% of Tesla’s solar systems on Walmart’s roofs are going up in flames (i.e. 7 out of 240), and it is clear that Tesla’s fail rate is not just unusual, but shockingly high.
So, that’s what experts about the solar industry have to say: the vast majority of solar panels operating across the country have had no problems at all. And only a very small portion of those have posed a fire hazard.
Then, according to Secure Futures’ own Chief Technology Officer Hugh Stoll, who for more than a decade has overseen our company’s solar installations on colleges and universities, K-12 schools and other types of customers, a good solar company will follow three practices to make sure that their solar panels continue to operate safely:
- Perform Daily Monitoring and Regular Maintenance. A good solar company doesn’t leave when the last panel is secured and connected. The company will continuously monitor and maintain a system after installation to ensure optimal output and help prevent equipment problems. For example, dry leaves and debris from nearby trees can accumulate underneath solar panels, creating a fire hazard. That debris must periodically be swept out. A good solar company would remotely monitor panels daily and make an on-site inspection at least once a year. Performing regular thermal scans helps identify potential panel malfunctions before they happen. Should any issues arise, the company is able to respond quickly.
- Pay More for Safer Equipment. With recent advances in technology for the solar panels, inverters, wires and hardware that go into a solar array, as well as improvements in remote monitoring and control systems, today’s solar arrays are safer than those installed even a few years ago. For example, solar installations now have the ability to self diagnose many common problems and then send an immediate report via an electronic monitoring system. If programmed to do so, a group of solar panels with a potential problem can even shut down and cut off any live voltage. Pairing regular system monitoring with high quality equipment is a combination for a healthy solar system to safely produce power at maximum capacity for the life of the equipment.
- Be Transparent. A good solar company would not provide misleading or false information to their customer about the solar system. If a company has followed steps one and two, then they should share their regular reports with the customer to let them know how their system is performing. Anyone thinking of going solar should check references or online reviews about customer service and maintenance for any solar installer or developer before signing on the dotted line.
When you are searching for a solar company to add solar panels to your rooftop, ask what they do to make sure that the solar arrays they install continue to perform safely and effectively.
— Sam Stoner, Secure Futures Solar