Solar module manufacturer BP Solar - the “green” branch of energy giant British Petroleum (the same folks who brought you the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico) - exited the solar market in 2011. But now a class-action lawsuit is alleging that BP Solar knew as early as 2005 that some of its solar modules, including ones that were widely sold in California, pose a serious risk of failure and even fires. Will BP step up and do the right thing? (For the record, Run on Sun never used BP Solar modules.)
BP does not deny that they have a potential problem. In a carefully worded 2012 Product Advisory, BP acknowledged the following:
This product advisory is being issued to communicate a potential risk when using certain BP Solar modules in specific types of installations. Testing has shown there is a limited risk of cable to busbar disconnection in the junction box that, in rare cases, may lead to a thermal event in certain applications of the products referenced below. A thermal event, depending upon the severity, can cause secondary damage to surrounding materials that are not fire resistant.
While BP’s advisory uses the overly lawyered phrase, “thermal event” to describe what can happen, others use less measured language. A report on Bay Area television station KTVU/Fox 2 speaks of consumer complaints about solar modules with a bevy of problems including “burning up, shattering and putting homes in danger.”
BP is not the only entity to “lawyer-up." The two-person law firm of Birka-White is challenging BP in a class action lawsuit (see the complaint here) that harkens back to David taking on Goliath. Birka-White, which had previously sued Suntech over problems with solar roofing tiles, a problem we have documented in this blog, alleges in their suit that a defect in the junction box on the affected BP solar modules causes them to fail, “resulting in a loss of electric current and serious safety risks, including the risk of fire." Despite that risk, the complaint alleges that BP continued to sell the defective modules until 2010, even though BP knew of the defects “since at least 2005."
More specifically, the complaint alleges that:
17. The connection between Solar Panels is made at a junction box attached to each Solar Panel. A defect in the junction box and the solder joints between the connecting cables causes the solder joint to overheat.
18. When the solder joint overheats, the connection between the Solar Panels breaks. This break in the circuit results in an arc of an electrical current which generates heat between 2000-3000 degrees Fahrenheit.
19. The heat caused by this failure melts the junction box, burns the cables and the Solar Panel and shatters the glass cover of the Solar Panel. Attached hereto as Exhibit D are photographs of BP Solar Panel junction box failures. If there is flammable material near the heat source, such a [sic] dry leaves, the junction box failure creates a high risk of fire. Fires caused by junction box failures have already occurred and there is a substantial risk that they will occur in the future.
20. Because of the defect in the junction box, all Solar Panels relevant to this litigation have failed or will fail before the end of their expected useful life.
The photos above are taken from Exhibit D and show the sort of “thermal event” that the affected homeowners (the potential members of the class to be certified as part of the litigation) could experience.
Faced with such compelling evidence of product defects, what has BP’s response been? You guessed it - to hide behind their limited warranty and to offer consumers a financial remedy that falls far short of making them whole.
To be sure, any product can have a defect, and it is by no means uncommon for a corporation to seek shelter from liability for such defects by pointing to limiting language in its product warranties. Yet BP, which had a net profit in 2013 of $13.4 billion, would certainly seem to be in a position to compensate the innocent victims of its product defects more fully. Of course, having halted solar operations altogether, BP has no ongoing vested interest in avoiding the black eye that its stonewalling will inevitably create for the entire solar industry. Indeed, how will other solar module manufacturers respond to BP’s failure and the ensuing litigation? Strong statements from industry leaders affirming their commitment to address promptly, and beyond the fine print of their limited warranties, problems arising from product defects could go a long way to restoring consumer confidence damaged by these BP revelations.
We decided to take a look into the CSI data to get a sense of how big an issue this might be in California. BP’s product advisory asserts that only certain module models, and only those manufactured from March 1, 2005 to October 31, 2006 have the defect that can lead to “thermal events.” The complaint, however, disputes that limitation, alleging that, “the risk of junction box failure exists for all Solar Panels - not just the limited number listed in the Product Advisory - manufactured at any time - not just the limited time frame covered by the Product Advisory.”
Regardless of which position is determined to be accurate, the CSI data provides no visibility into installations prior to 2007. And while the problem may or may not affect module models beyond those listed in the Product Advisory, as far as the data is concerned, the vast number of residential installations made use of only two BP models: BP175B and BP4175B - both of which are listed on the Product Advisory. Both products appear in the data as of 2007 (which could easily include modules manufactured during the Product Advisory period) and continue into this year. The peak year for installations of the 175B module was 2010, whereas the 4175B peaked the year later, in 2011. Here is the distribution:
At a minimum, those 135 installation in 2007 would likely have used modules from the Product Advisory period, and if plaintiffs are correct, there could be as many as 1,300+ installations based on these two modules alone.
While there is no doubt that individual homeowners are at greatest risk, there are more than 100 companies that installed these BP modules, potentially exposing them to liability for failures. Affected companies include major players like SolarCity, Verengo, and Sungevity, as well as dozens of much smaller companies, many of which are no longer in business. Those companies relied upon BP’s representations and are also victims here.
While larger companies might have the resources (if not necessarily the inclination) to help out their customers in this situation, smaller companies with more limited resources are not in a position to foot the bill for replacement systems (the remedy being sought in the litigation). Never-the-less, they can and should offer free inspections to their affected customers. It will be far better for the solar industry if a customer learns of a potential problem from the company that installed their system than if they hear about it in the media, or worse, suffer a “thermal event” on their own roof.
As solar installers, we depend upon manufactures to produce products that are safe and reliable, and to stand behind those products when there is an issue. We cannot, sadly, control the outcome when a supposedly competent manufacturer introduces defective products and then refuses to act responsibly. We can, and must, however, take all reasonable steps available to us to mitigate the harm - to our clients and to the industry - when such unpleasant circumstances arise.
We have just learned that solar panel manufacturer SolarWorld has announced a recall involving 1.3 million solar panels sold in the U.S. since June 2011. According to the Notice filed with the Consumer Products Safety Commission:
SolarWorld solar panels installed with bare-copper grounding lugs can corrode which could result in a faulty ground circuit, posing an electric shock, electrocution or fire hazard.
So what exactly is the issue here? All metal components of a solar power system—such as the frames of the solar panels and the rails to which they are attached—are supposed to be grounded. There are many ways that can be done, but one common method is to attach a copper lug to the panel frame and run a copper grounding wire from lug to lug and ultimately to ground. The problem arises from the fact that copper grounding lugs come in two varieties: bare copper and “tinned” copper, that is copper with a coating of tin.
|Bare copper grounding lugs||“Tinned” copper grounding lugs|
If the installer used a bare copper lug, it could cause corrosion to form between the panel frame and the lug. That corrosion could prevent the ground from being effective, which could result in the potential problems highlighted in the CPSC notice.
In other words, while this is a potential problem and systems should be inspected to insure that the proper, “tinned” lug was used, the recall does not involve the safety of the solar panels themselves. Moreover, the fix, if required, is straightforward (even if potentially time consuming): simply replace the improper lugs with proper ones.
While the recall notice refers to 1.3 million panels in the U.S., we wanted to get a sense of how many of these panels have been installed in California, and, more specifically, in the Run on Sun service area. To get a handle on that we turned to two familiar data sources: CSI data (showing installs in SCE, PG&E and SDG&E territories) and LADWP data. Given that LADWP requires the use of grounding lugs (as opposed to WEEBs), there is an even higher probability that SolarWorld systems in LADWP territory used a grounding lug.
The CSI data shows just how widespread this issue could be. More than half a million SolarWorld panels have been installed in CSI territories, accounting for over 6,500 different installations, installed by more than 500 different companies! How many of those companies are still in business is anybody’s guess. In SCE territory alone, 186,000 SolarWorld panels were installed at 3,125 different projects, by nearly 300 different companies.
The installers with by far the greatest number of SolarWorld panels installed are Shorebreak Energy Developers (43,242 panels installed at 46 different projects) and Chevron Energy Solutions (20,464 panels at 15 projects). In terms of having the greatest number of projects, six companies have 100 or more projects, and the winners there are: A1 Solar Power, Inc. (217 projects), Titan Construction and Solar (202), Natural Energy (186), Contact Electric (174), Future Energy Corporation (124) and TLP Electric Integrations (103).
The LADWP data is, not surprisingly, somewhat more opaque. For example, they do not track how many solar panels are installed on a given project so we cannot determine the total number of SolarWorld panels that have been installed. We do know that there are some 759 projects overall where SolarWorld panels were used, and more than 100 different installers were involved. Three of those installers were responsible for fifty or more projects, they are: A1 Solar Power, Inc. (120 projects), Sungate Energy Solutions (76) and American Solar Solutions (67). Looks like the folks at A1 Solar Power are going to be busy!
If you are the owner of a SolarWorld installation, you will want to contact your installer and see what they are willing to do. At a minimum, they should be willing to come out to your site, free of cost, and verify that the proper lugs were used. Even if it were the company’s policy to always use “tinned” lugs, a system owner should not rely on those assurances since install crews have been known to substitute whatever is available at the local hardware store in order to complete the project and move on to the next.
If your installer is no longer in business, or is unwilling to come out and verify that your system is safe, you should contact SolarWorld themselves directly. They have established a toll-free number to call: 877-360-1787, M-F from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
If you own one of these systems, please let us know in the comments about your experience.
We spent some quality time on the exhibit floor, and at the social events, of last week’s Intersolar North America and here’s our take.
The show felt smaller, to be sure, and we didn’t see anything that created a real “Wow” moment. (Possible exception, the mini solar race cars which were very cool, but they didn’t really have much to do with anything.) With SPI looming in just a few short weeks in, wait for it… Las Vegas Man™… it was hard to shake the feeling that manufacturers were keeping their powder dry until October.
Of course, not everything was smaller.
The folks at Mechatron won the prize for the largest solar device at the show—an enormous solar tracker (which we were told took them a day and a half to assemble inside the hall!)—that has more than a bit of a Transformers feel to it.
Sadly it wasn’t moving during the show…
Given the show’s smaller feel you would expect some well known names to be missing and you would be right.
We are happiest to report that the number one no-show was last year’s Sexism Public Enemy Number One: RECOM. Although they had a significant presence at Intersolar in Europe a month ago, they were nowhere to be seen at this show, and the folks from Intersolar confirmed that RECOM had originally booked a booth but then cancelled without explanation. Did they back out due to the backlash over their nonsense last year? We can only hope…
Inverter manufacturers Enphase Energy, KACO and SMA were all missing from the floor—although that’s no surprise for Enphase who never shows at Intersolar, and who had a large presence elsewhere in co-hosting the Tweetup (thank you!) and the Solarfest.
SMA, although not on the floor did manage to take a swipe at its competition with this banner (that’s a really, really big banner!) and a van parked outside touting their market dominance—in the past.
We are all for made in the USA, but what percentage of the show attendees were walking around with smartphones that were made somewhere other than the USA? Uh, pretty much everybody.
Not clear that this is a winning argument, or even SMA’s best argument given that their TL inverters are a very cool product. If your only presence is going to be a banner, why not tout an actual benefit of your products?
Our stated goal for the show was to identify a new racking supplier to replace our now discontinued standard (Unirac’s late, great, Solarmount Evolution) and toward that end we spent a lot of time on the third floor where the racking suppliers hung out. Continuing the recent trend, there was a lot on display.
A study in contrast could be found between the displays at the Shoals and Schletter booths. Both supply racking gear. Both offered coffee in the morning and beer in the afternoon. And both had attractive women handing out the drinks. The difference? The women at the Schletter booth actually work for the company (in a wide variety of jobs, other than marketing) whereas Shoals insists, defiantly, on promoting the Booth Babe culture with models in black cocktail dresses. (Leading to scenes like this of guys standing around to photograph the models. Not sure how that promotes solar or Shoals’ products.)
Still we did see racking systems that we liked. Iron Ridge has an interesting rail shape which they insist is stronger than other products, and their CEO, William Kim, seemed very eager to connect with installers and learn from their experience—something that other companies need to do!
But our overall winner at the show was Everest Solar Systems. Talk about learning from installers, all of their components are pre-assembled so the installer doesn’t find herself on a roof missing a bolt. The parts work together in an intelligent fashion and seem designed to streamline the process on the roof where it matters.
For example, here is a picture showing their end clamp assembly (and attractive end-cap for the rail) and there are a number of features here to like.
To begin with, the clamp is extra wide giving you a firmer grip on the module. The clamp has a small spring inside which means that once inserted in the channel, the clip stands up at full height, making it easier to insert the modules under the clip. (The mid clamps also have this feature which we think is a great idea.) The black piece next to the rail is a plastic grip that the installer can use to position the clamp in the rail and turn to align it properly—another clever feature which should cut down on fumbling on the roof.
Equally well thought out are the splices (which do not use self-tapping screws, thank you) that provide structural strength while allowing for thermal expansion. Oh, and there’s no drilling required on the roof!
We are eager to give the Everest system a try on an install very soon.
As we have seen in previous years, enthusiasm for intelligent storage systems is high, while actual products are few. And even when a product is on display, it is not always clear that the folks talking about the product have really thought it through.
Take, for example, this potential offering from LG.
We say potential because this is really a concept vehicle, not something you can order now. Indeed, the decal on the box proclaims that the product will debut in Europe the second half of next year. Roll-out in the US is not slated until sometime in 2016.
More troubling though was, in our view, a misunderstanding of the nuance in this market. The box shown has a storage capacity of only 2 kWh—less than a tenth of the daily energy output of a 5 kW solar power system. How and when will that energy be deployed to assist the homeowner in reducing their bills? In talking with the LG rep, we started to explain the differences between how you might use that energy under a tiered rate structure versus a time-of-use structure. Instead of being told that their software was designed to handle those differences, we got a mostly blank stare. Now that could simply be that the rep wasn’t fully up-to-speed on how the box is designed to operate, but it was not encouraging.
What is encouraging is that electronics giants like LG are starting to get serious about this opportunity and from what we have seen from LG in the solar module space, we are confident that they can develop a compelling product offering—just not yet.
Meanwhile, last year’s show standout for really grokking this space, Stem, was nowhere to be seen. Nor was their SoCal competitor, CODA. Perhaps both are keeping their chips in reserve, hoping to make a big play in Vegas at SPI. Watch this space.
Finally, we have two things to report under this topic—one cautionary, the other celebratory. Caution first.
Creeping up on the entire California solar market is the issue of Fire Code regulations that have the potential to bring things to a screeching halt come next January. We are still trying to get up to speed ourselves on this issue, but there were fire code regulations that were supposed to go into effect last January but were postponed because no one had a technical solution for meeting them. That postponement was for only a year, however, which means that come 1/1/15 we are subject to these regs.
As we presently understand the issue (and feel free to offer clarifications in the comments), roof systems are rated under classes A-C based on how resistant they are to an outside source of combustion (think of a burning tree limb resting on the roof), with class A being the most resistant. Solar modules on the market today generally have a class C fire rating. The new regs would say that where a roof system is required to be class A (as in high fire threat areas), all components on the roof must also be class A—but if there are no class A rated solar modules, such buildings would be unable to add solar. Moreover, even if a module were designated class A, it would still have to be tested with the roofing system to ensure that the combined system were class A.
If that weren’t bad enough, there is an additional categorization pertaining to fire spread, and because roof arrays more than a few inches above the roof act like conduits for spreading flame, such arrays cannot pass the flame spread requirements. Yikes!
Both module manufacturers and racking reps that we brought this up with gave us a deer-in-the-headlights response initially (with the exception of Barry Cinnamon’s Spice product offering), with some subsequently saying that they were working on the issue.
As noted above, we are still getting up to speed on this issue and we will have much more to say about it in the coming weeks. Watch this space.
Finally, our Battle of the Bands karma continued to rock at Intersolar.
For those not in the know, the annual Battle of the Bands has two, parallel sets of competitors. On the one hand are the house bands from various solar companies who go head-to-head to see who will be crowned the best of the best. But just as fierce is the competition to get a ticket to the closed event!
Two years ago we got in on sheer force of personality (not ours, but that of Solar Fred) and last year Jeff (Solar) Spies’ crew at QuickMount PV provided the ducket. But alas, not this year.
We were directed to another booth where there was a raffle we could join, but no luck.
Yet then, we turned the corner and found ourselves at the NABCEP booth where Sue Pratt was about to raffle off two tickets. We tossed our biz card into the bowl (complete with NABCEP Certified logo, thank you very much) and then crossed our fingers. When the first card pulled turned out to be a no-show, Sue dug deep—and pulled out our card! How cool was that? (We gave the second ticket to another installer who had just had his hopes dashed by our good fortune—gotta pay that Battle of the Bands karma forward!)
Lots of photos from the party (though oddly, many are strangely blurry—sorry about that Kathie & Jessica) but we will leave you with our favorite—may your karma be so good next year!
Is your solar power system safe? How can you be sure?
We are receiving more and more inquiries about fixing solar power systems from folks whose system has stopped working and the original installer can no longer be found. Sometimes a violent act of nature prompts the need for our services, but all too often we are seeing shoddy work that has failed far too soon.
Case in point, we received a call from a true “rocket scientist” the other day who had a solar power system installed about seven years ago, but now he was having a problem. We learned that the system had been installed by an air conditioning company (you’ve seen their ads), and it had two SMA Sunny Boy 2800 inverters—now well out of warranty—and one of them was displaying the dreaded, ground fault error. Ground faults occur when a normally ungrounded, current-carrying conductor makes contact with something that is grounded, such as the frame of a solar module, the system racking or even the conduit itself. Ground faults can be dangerous and are often difficult to locate.
When the solar system owner contacted his installation company, they offered to replace his offline inverter—for $5,000! Of course, simply replacing the inverter was unlikely to do anything about the ground fault, and it was possible that there was nothing wrong with the inverter at all, apart from being out of warranty. But in any event, charging $5,000 to simply do a one-for-one inverter replacement was highway robbery, and the system owner was pretty annoyed by the time he got around to calling us. Since there was no way to properly diagnose the situation over the phone, we agreed to come out and take a look.
Sure enough, one of the inverters was working fine, but the other displayed a ground fault message. The system owner told us that there was a combiner box on the roof, so we headed there to try and figure out where the fault might be. Here’s what we found in that “combiner box":
This is so NOT a combiner box!
This is a junction box into which the folks who threw this system together crammed the wires coming from the strings, joined them together (without any fusing to protect the array, to say nothing of the house) and then routed them downstairs to the inverters.
Another problem—the wires coming into this non-combiner box are all THHN, which is fine for a conductor running in conduit, but is no good at all for conductors coming from solar modules in the array. The insulation here is simply not designed to hold up under years of exposure to sunlight.
This is simply ignorant, shoddy work that has no place in the solar industry. Sadly, this particular company has not gone out of business, though the world would be a better place if they had.
People can get hurt this way. Property can be destroyed this way.
And the solar industry can get a very bad reputation this way.
We broke the bad news to the system owner and explained that what was needed was to replace the box on the roof with a proper combiner box, replace the improper wiring with USE-2 wiring that is designed to last on a roof, and bring the system back online. We also suggested that given that his existing inverters were out of warranty, he might want to consider upgrading to a single, transformerless inverter that would provide a ten-year warranty, the possibility of online monitoring, and much greater efficiency. That was the path he decided to take.
We installed an Outback combiner and upgraded the wiring. In so doing we managed to bring some order out of the previous chaos, take a look:
Now each of the four strings is properly protected by a dedicated, touch-safe fuse, and there is proper stress relief on the USE-2 conductors entering the box from the array.
We also installed ground lugs on each of the rails—something the air conditioning guys hadn’t bothered to do—and we installed two end clamps that had somehow been overlooked when the install was done.
The cool, new SMA 5000TL inverter allowed us to add monitoring to the system, as well as SMA’s emergency power outlet that provides a nominal amount of power from the array, even if the grid fails. In the process we were able to clean up the wiring on the ground, get rid of those air conditioning disconnect switches and install a proper disconnect. Oh, and while we were at it, we even arranged to donate the old inverters to Habitat for Humanity, providing the system owner with a charitable tax deduction!
Most importantly, we were able to restore his confidence in the solar array on his home. And maybe, even a bit of confidence in the solar industry itself.
There are a number of take aways from this experience that we would like to stress:
Ever since a fire chief in New Jersey let a warehouse burn for days because of his concerns about dealing with the solar power system on the roof, we are seeing a spate of these stories now migrated to concerns about residential solar as well. We think the risk is greatly overstated, but it turns out that allaying a firefighter’s fear of solar is one more argument for using Enphase microinverters.
We wrote about the New Jersey issue back in September and the fire chief was quoted as saying, “with all that power and energy up there, I can’t jeopardize a guy’s life for that.” Now no one wants to see anyone injured because of a fire, and certainly not because solar was on the structure that was burning. (The cause of the fire has not yet been disclosed.) But was that really the only option—avoid the roof and let the fire burn for days?
Worse still, now we are starting to see a steady drumbeat of similar stories with a residential slant.
Take this story that aired on a local news outlet with the scary title: Firefighters Warn Solar Panels Could Prevent Homes from Being Saved in Blaze. While the homeowner is thrilled to be saving money, he is unaware of the danger he is facing until it is presented to him—by the reporter. But how great is that danger, and what can be done to minimize it?
For one thing, here in California there are already State Fire Marshall guidelines that require set-asides on the roof to allow firefighters access and space to vent the roof as needed, without having to cut into areas covered by solar.
As for the concern about turning the system off so that dangerous amounts of power aren’t present on the roof, well, that is where the benefit of microinverters, such as those that we use from Enphase Energy, comes into play. When you shut off the power at the ground-based AC disconnect switch, the entire array is powered down. The solar conduits coming down from the roof are rendered inert, harmless, with no power present at all. This is the safest possible environment for firefighters with solar and the fire inspectors that we have dealt with readily understand, and appreciate, the difference.
So, should a homeowner pick a solar power system based on avoiding fire danger? Perhaps not; but if you are the sort that worries about such things, you should know that microinverters give you one more benefit—firefighter safety—over older designs. To maximize that benefit, we just need a generally accepted sign to mount on our systems that will let firefighters know what sort of solar system they are facing.