New Jersey’s growing solar energy industry is creating some new hazards for firefighters and prompting the firefighting community and solar industry officials to develop new safety measures.
Firefighters say rooftop solar panel systems are in many cases limiting their ability to vent smoke from burning buildings, and firefighters must contend with panels that produce electrical current and can’t be shut down as long as the sun is shining.
“It changes the way we fight a fire,” said Atlantic County Fire Training Director Michael Corbo. “It’s a safety issue.”
Solar industry officials acknowledge the concerns and say they’re involved in research to limit the potential danger firefighters and other first responders face from live solar panels. They also said recently enacted fire code regulations in New Jersey require access aisles through the rows of solar panels that often cover the expansive flat roofs of everything from industrial buildings to schools.
Dan Whitten, spokesman for the Solar Energy Industries Association in Washington, D.C., said the organization continues to support better building, fire and electrical codes and technological advances to improve safety for first responders.
“In fact, we have sought out opportunities to collaborate with firefighters on code and standards development such as improved firefighter access pathways, system-based fire testing methods and rapid shutdown system design that result in state-of-the-art solutions,” he said.
Some of those solutions don’t have to be elaborate.
All but about a dozen properties in Vineland are serviced by the city-owned Vineland Municipal Electric Utility.
The utility provides the Fire Department with the addresses of buildings on which solar panels are installed so firefighters know what to expect before arriving on the scene, said Vineland Fire Chief Bob Pagnini. There is no reason why, in other municipalities, either the companies that install the panels or the regular electricity provider can’t provide similar notifications, he said.
Such a notification wouldn’t be onerous, said Lyle Rawlings, president of the Mid-Atlantic Solar Energy Industries Association, which covers New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. The notice could be included in the packet of forms a company must fill out for municipal code enforcement offices before starting a project.
Rawlings said while he’s heard the concerns from firefighters for some time, he doesn’t see finding solutions as being a combative situation between the solar industry and firefighters. Both sides are still learning how to cope with the impact of new technology, he said.
New Jersey ranks fourth in the United States in installed solar capacity with 1,695 megawatts, according to the Solar Energies Industries Association. More than 1,700 more megawatts of solar electric capacity are expected to be installed in the state during the next five years, according to the organization.
With that explosion of solar arrays comes problems for firefighters.
For instance, about 7,000 solar panels on the roof of a burning warehouse in Delanco, Burlington County, caused access problems for firefighters in September 2013. Six months later, firefighters said they faced electrocution risks from the panels in controlling a blaze at a warehouse in Berlin Township, Camden County.
Last month, firefighters battling a blaze in Providence, Rhode Island, said their efforts were marred by concerns that the extra weight from solar panels could cause a premature roof collapse. A recent fire in Merrick, New York, caused some solar panels to melt and fall on firefighters.
Corbo said the state holds information classes related to dealing with fire and solar panels twice a year. Atlantic County will hold a similar course depending on the number of firefighters interested in attending, he said.
“The majority of the fire service knows about the solar panel issue,” he said.
But roof access continues to be major problem, Corbo said. Firefighters unable to vent smoke through roofs now have to vent the materials in a more horizontal, side-to-side manner through windows or walls, he said. Firefighters may not want to work inside some structures for fear of premature roof collapse aided by the weight of a solar panel, he said.
“We have to adapt,” he said.
Rawlings said some of the new technologies include devices that attach to each solar panel and prevent electric current from leaving the panel, further limiting electrocution concerns. The solar panels will continue to be “hot,” he said, and remain so as long as there is sunlight.
“Common sense still applies” for firefighters dealing with solar panels during the course of their duties, he said. Wearing insulated gloves is one protective measure, he said.
But even with all the new safety advances, Rawlings estimates there are still about 45,000 solar arrays built under old fire, electrical and construction codes.
“Firefighters are still going to be faced with older systems that don’t meet the new codes,” he said. “They will continue to need training on how these systems work.”