According to recent reports from CNBC and other major news outlets, Amazon temporarily shut down all solar power generation at their North American facilities last year as they worked to investigate potential fire safety issues with these systems. While the details of what Amazon found in their investigations during the shutdown are unspecified and therefore can’t be expounded upon, knowing that Amazon recognized a compounding problem and made safety paramount by shutting down their solar generation at 47 North American sites should be commended. Although there was significant financial loss to Amazon by moving forward with the shutdown and launching the investigation, making the decision to do so aligned with the principles established by the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem™—specifically, the company chose to make an Investment in Safety.
The NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem is a framework that identifies the components that must work together to minimize risk and help prevent loss, injuries, and death from fire, electrical, and other hazards. There are eight key components in the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem. These components are interdependent. When they work together, the Ecosystem protects everyone. If any component is missing or broken, the Ecosystem can collapse, often resulting in tragedy. Almost always we can trace the cause of fire and life safety tragedies back to the breakdown of one or more components. Aside from the aforementioned Investment in Safety, there are several other key areas of the Ecosystem that apply to safe solar installations.
Codes, compliance, and skilled workers
With a technology that is constantly changing like solar photovoltaic (PV) power, using the most current codes is critical for a safe installation. Within the Ecosystem, this would fall under the Development and Use of Current Codes component. As an example, NFPA 70,® National Electrical Code® (NEC®), covers the installation of PV systems in Article 690, including the array circuit(s), inverter(s), and controller(s) for such systems. Article 691 covers large-scale PV electric supply stations not under exclusive utility control, such as privately owned solar farms.
Yet many areas of the country do not use the most current edition of the NEC, with some areas using editions dating back as far as 2008. That is a 15-year difference between the most current NEC and some of the oldest versions being used. As can be expected, there have been significant changes in product development and safe solar installation requirements over those years. For instance, rapid shutdown is a means of solar equipment reducing the potential for electric shock within 30 seconds of activation of shutdown, intended to raise the level of safety for firefighters that are responding to potential solar array fires. Rapid shutdown was introduced in the 2014 cycle of the NEC so anyone utilizing prior editions would not be providing this level of safety for first responders. This is a clear example of why it is so important to utilize the most current codes for solar installations in order to achieve maximum safety.
Fortunately, even for jurisdictions that are lagging behind in the use of the most recent codes, professionals can choose to take trainings on more recent editions. The NFPA 70, National Electrical Code (NEC) (2020) Online Training Series, for example, provides trainees with key information and interactive exercises on the 2020 edition of the NEC. With the 2023 NEC having just taken effect September 1, be on the lookout for forthcoming training based on that version of the NEC.
Another area of the Ecosystem that is necessary for a safe solar installations is Code Compliance. The only way to truly ensure a safe installation is by verifying it through effective code enforcement. Those tasked with inspecting solar installations for safety must consider everything involved while reviewing the systems. NEC requirements as well as manufacturer installation requirements are critical items that must be met. It is also important to remember that code compliance does not end with the initial installation of the system. Any time a solar installation gets updated or modified, it is just as important to have that system reviewed again for continued compliance with the necessary codes as it was to have it inspected in the first place.
The individuals that perform the solar installation matter as well. The Ecosystem requires a Skilled Workforce in order to ensure safe installations. Those that are considered skilled are aware of the most current codes and know how to apply them to the installation. They have been trained to properly handle, install, and maintain the equipment that is involved. From an enforcement standpoint, the NEC takes skill a step further by requiring that only qualified persons perform the installation of solar equipment, associated wiring, and interconnections. By definition within the NEC, a qualified person has skills and knowledge related to the construction and operation of the electrical equipment and installations and has received safety training to recognize and avoid the hazards involved.
One critical way a Skilled Workforce can be created is through training programs like the ones offered by NFPA. The Photovoltaic and Energy Storage Systems Online Training Series, for example, is a four-part online program that covers topics that can assist with design, installation, maintenance, and inspection requirements for PV and energy storage systems. The training educates users on relevant code requirements for PV systems and ESS not just within the NEC, but also within other leading codes including NFPA 1, Fire Code, NFPA 855, Standard for the Installation of Stationary Energy Storage Systems, NFPA 5000®, Building Construction and Safety Code®, and others.
When it comes to safe installations of solar power it is critical that we play offense, instead of defense. Choosing to be proactive by ensuring safe installations that align with the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem up front will prevent the need for reactive decisions to correct any potential problems down the line. In the United States alone, solar power capacity has grown from approximately 0.34 gigawatts in 2008 to an estimated 97.2 gigawatts today. With no slowing down in sight, it is critical that those involved in performing solar installations and maintenance are doing so with safety as an important and necessary part of the process. Learn more about all of NFPA’s resources on PV and energy storage systems at nfpa.org/ess.