Saturday, September 7, 2013

Energy and Fire:

Hidden Dangers

Just last week, I commented on the Yosemite fire and the concerns forest fires raise in terms of siting of some energy sources and power lines.  I didn't think I'd find myself writing about fire issues again so soon, but a friend just sent me a very interesting article about the dangers solar panels pose for firefighters.  The article raises yet another, although very different, fire-related issue that I hadn't thought about before.

The article reports that the solar panels on the roof of a burning warehouse in Burlington County, New Jersey, presented serious safety hazards for the firefighters attempting to extinguish the blaze.  "We may very well not be able to save buildings that have alternative energy," New Jersey's acting fire marshall, William Kramer, said after a fire chief refused to sent his firefighters onto the roof of the warehouse on August 31.

Several problems were identified in the article:
  • - The possibility of electric shock because electricity to the panels can't be shut off,
  • - The fact that any kind of light, including a firefighter's flashlight, will activate the panels,
  • - Not having a clear path on the roof to cut ventilation holes,
  • - The chance of slipping on the slick panels,
  • - The increased possibility of structural collapse because of the weight of the panels on the roof, and
  • - Inhalation exposure from the caustic fumes of solar batteries. 
The concerns that solar panels pose for firefighters have been recognized for at least several years, as a 2010 report by the Fire Protection Research Foundation was cited that warned firefighters to treat all solar systems as energized at all times.

The inherent conflict between firefighting and other requirements is certainly not unique to solar energy.  In homes and businesses, space layouts and other features of buildings are optimized for convenience of use, comfort, security, and other reasons rather than for optimum fire safety or access by emergency responders.  In nuclear power plants, some of the measures taken to ensure security against unauthorized intrusion may make it more difficult for emergency responders to move around the plant quickly in case of any emergency, including a fire. 

In the case of solar energy systems, the problem has the potential to be more serious than in some other cases.  This is in part because of the use of solar systems in residential and office buildings, where many lives may be endangered if fires can't be extinguished.  The fact that more and more solar energy systems are being installed means that the potential risks are multiplying quickly.  And finally, the fact that solar energy systems can pose multiple potential threats to the safety of firefighters, each of which may need a different solution, makes the efforts to address this problem more difficult and more costly. 

These kinds of problems, serious though they are, do not seem to be insurmountable.  The article quotes a representative of the Solar Energy Industry Association saying they are working on appropriate codes and standards for solar installations and on training for first responders.  Clearly, there may be a need for "backfits" to improve the safety of existing solar installations for firefighters, or even for some limits in the deployment of solar energy systems.

The reaction to the news of yet another unexpected problem attributed to solar installations should not be one of defensiveness from the solar energy advocates or of joy from the proponents of other energy technologies.  Neither approach helps move us towards a future with adequate supplies of safe, affordable energy.  Rather, the reaction should be the recognition by all that every source of energy supply has pros and cons, that every source of energy supply has some unexpected drawbacks, and that we must keep assessing and improving the design, installation, and operation of all energy supply systems to address issues as we learn of them. 


1 comment:

  1. Beware of "facts" that aren't, such as this one:

    "The fact that any kind of light, including a firefighter's flashlight, will activate the panels"

    The panels can only convert to electricity a small fraction of the power of the incident light, perhaps 20% maximum.  If a firefighter's flashlight isn't directly dangerous, it's very unlikely that a solar panel can generate even a minor nuisance level of power from it.