Data-driven solar fire prevention – pv magazine Australia
No one wants their PV systems to catch fire, but little is known about how to actually prevent such incidents.
Photovoltaic system fires tend to strike a nerve within industry. Although rare compared to other disaster events in the system, such events still receive considerable attention.
The problem with solar system fires that’s how little we know about them. Questions have remained for years about the common causes, the origin of system failures and how often these failures could occur. These questions are the same as those pursued by Dr John R. Balfour, President of High Performance PV, and Lawrence Shaw, Chief Solar Systems Engineer at More Powerful, LLC.
For Balfour and Shaw, the clearest and most pressing problem with PV system fire prevention is how little information is kept about them. All reported fires in the country are tracked by the US Fire Administration (USFA) using data provided by local fire departments. However, when it is determined that a solar system is the cause of a fire, it is as deep as reported, without exploring specific failures or causes. Additionally, if a fire department has not listed solar PV as an option in its reporting systems, it is filed with the USFA in various ways.
As it is, solar system fires are underreported, and sometimes not at all. The information available is dated and the specific causes remain a mystery.
Defective hardware, aging components and improper installation can be seen as a bad reflection of the industry as a whole. But Balfour says it’s a drawback that needs to be overcome to address a larger problem in the industry.
“Almost all of these problems are quite controllable,” Balfour said. “And that control comes down to having precise shared information, that is, data on the components and the system.”
Balfour and Shaw came across case studies in Japan and Britain of solar system fires. Most of these fires were caused by aging and failing system components, and a significant number of failures were attributed to components older than seven years.
Typically, the blame is often attributed to improper installation. However, small case studies are not enough to rule out installation issues as a contributing factor.
Many businesses and project owners are unwilling to share such information. However, this creates a circular problem where we still don’t know what causes the solar system fires and how to avoid them.
Balfour and Shaw believe the catalyst for more in-depth and informative data tracking will come from solar project financiers and insurers. If solar system fires become more frequent and / or destructive, they will become a legitimate industry-wide concern for the economics and reliability of the project.
Financiers will not want to approach projects without some level of certainty that the proper precautions are being taken, and insurers may not provide coverage for projects that do not implement preventive O&M and other precautions. It’s similar to what happens with solar projects in hail-prone regions, where research on hail damage mitigation and monitoring was initiated by the insurance industry.
To try to figure out what these losses might look like, Shaw developed a methodology to estimate the costs and future impacts of fires reported by PV systems in California. By estimating the number of PV systems in the state that are over seven years old and using the data available to track the number of fires in California each year, Shaw’s model is able to generally predict the number of fires. photovoltaics that will occur in California and what their cost will be.
Some of the details included in this article were developed for a book, “The Delivery of Photovoltaic (PV) Systems as Reliable Energy Infrastructure,” under contract with John Wiley & Sons. The book will be available in early 2022.
Author: Tim Sylvia
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