Fire and Solar are not friends. Summer has begun and we're approaching another bushfire season about to kick-off. For many parts of the country, 2020 has become a year of emergencies, think bushfires, pandemic, floods. And with 2021 on the horizon, we're back to where we began... Bushfires.! So what do you need to know for this coming season? Here we go.
What are the risks?
Health risks - Cancer?
Firstly we have the human health impacts from solar modules burning during a fire. The International Energy Agency conducted research in 2018 to determine the health impacts of becoming exposed to the chemicals in solar modules. They concluded the cancer risk associated with inhaling airborne releases of the highest‐prioritized chemical elements (primarily lead and cadmium) was a "negligible" or a 1:1,000,000 risk. Good odds.
So now we know there is minimal risk to us humans from the chemicals burning, we have more risks to worry about!
Financial risks - Are my Solar Panels insured?
The cost of solar has been declining for some time, but your solar investment is nothing to be snuffed at. According to Choice, "Solar panels are considered to be part of your building, so they will be covered by your home and contents insurance policy if they are damaged by things covered in your policy such as weather conditions. However, you will have to contact your insurer to increase your building sum insured." If in doubt, give your insurer a call.
Did you get that? Don't worry about pulling your solar panels off your roof when a bushfire is approaching, just get outta there!
Performance risks - Ash settling on my Solar Panels?
The CSIRO wrote this article on the impact of ash falling onto our solar array from a nearby bushfire. It concluded ... "Unless you’re close to fires where embers are falling, ash is just a different type of dust. Solar panels are not self-cleaning, but debris will wash off when it rains."
In addition to this, in our January Market Report 2020, we analysed the impacts of Solar PV generation across Victoria from the bushfires early this year. We found there is some evidence the Air Quality Index (AQI) impacted solar generation on those days measured for PM2.5. Meaning the dust particles from fire ash reduced solar generation at certain levels. Read more about that here.
A second source comes from Solar Analytics who found solar output was reduced between 15 and 40% during the December bushfires in Sydney and Canberra.
So yes, the ash can and does have a performance impact, though this is something you can deal with once the emergency has passed. I've written a blog post on Should I clean my Solar Panels this Summer? here too which is a worthwhile read.
Damage to Solar Modules
Your solar panels can be damaged by embers from a nearby bushfire, limbs from trees and more, resulting in damage to glass, modules, wiring, all the bits. There really isn't much to say here except follow the Planning for an Emergency shutdown procedure below prior to an emergency event and have your solar system checked by a licensed electrician or accredited installer before powering it back up. Common sense must prevail.
Planning for an Emergency
Ok, so we're planning for a bushfire which may approach in your area. Assuming this is not an emergency situation, you can safely undertake a shutdown procedure. This ensures any emergency workers can protect your assets without the concern of electrical risks from solar.
The Clean Energy Council advises the following for shutting down procedure:
Follow this shutdown procedure.
- Turn off the solar supply mains switch (this is usually found in the meter box)
- Turn off the normal supply main switch (this is usually found in the meter box)
- Turn off the PV array isolator (this is usually found next to the inverter)
- Some stand-alone solar power systems may include battery storage that can also be disconnected.
Stand-Alone Solar System
You can take the following steps to shut down your stand-alone solar system and battery storage:
- Turn off the solar array
- Turn off the inverter
- Follow the battery shutdown procedures to isolate the battery bank
- Disable the generator from starting if it has auto start.
After an Emergency
Once an emergency has passed, CSIRO recommend ...
"Get a licenced electrician or an accredited installer to check that your system is safe. Isolate the PV system electrically before returning to your house.”
"Tragically, there are reports of emergency services personnel seriously injured where solar panels are still electrified."
I've written a blog post on Should I clean my Solar Panels this Summer? here. It'll guide you through how and if it's worthwhile cleaning your solar array once its safe to do so, and only after once its been checked by a licensed electrician or an accredited installer.