South Miami Solar Plans Raise Questions About Disposal, Fire Safety

by | Jul 11, 2017

Image: Another solar panel fire in England has triggered a government investigation into panel installations in businesses, schools and private homes.

With another city commission meeting slated for Tuesday night, South Miami mayor Phillip Stoddard isn’t backing down from his plans to require all new construction in the city to include solar panels on the roof. But while Stoddard remains a staunch advocate for forcing solar power onto rooftops, he’s got few answers about plans to deal with defective or aging solar panels and used lithium batteries that will soon begin to pile up in his tiny community.

Unrecyclable solar panels sit outside a landfill.

Solar power continues to gain traction as a consumer technology as costs start to come down, but many early adopters are learning the hard way that the solar wave isn’t quite ready for mass adoption. The technology is plagued with challenges, and renewable energy advocates are starting to realize that the true cost of solar must include the environmental impact of manufacturing, maintaining and disposing of solar panels and batteries. Both contain hazardous chemicals and rare materials that have an impact on the environment all their own.

Worse, there is currently no market for recycling solar panels, because it’s not cost-effective to do so. Asked about this aspect of his solar ordinance, Stoddard acknowledges his city is too small to attract recycling vendors at this stage, but he’s aware that dealing with solar waste is going to be a signficant issue at some point in the future.

“I don’t think tiny South Miami has enough development to register a blip in the South Florida solar market,” he says, estimating the number of homes impacted by his ordinance at about 10 per year. “However, recycling of solar panels and lithium batteries will both have to be addressed in the USA. I imagine California will lead the way, as with everything else related to this industry.”

Fire safety is another looming problem, and one that Stoddard declined to address in a series of email exchanges on the subject. Panels aren’t fireproof as recent fires in London demonstrate.  In the UK, a series of recent solar panel fires has triggered an investigation into solar panel installations on thousands of buildings, homes and schools.

But even when solar panels are not the cause of blaze, they still get in the way of firefighters trying to contain a blaze. Wired Magazine covered the issue in gritty detail last month:

When first responders arrived to the burning home on Eugene Street in Manchester, New Hampshire just after 2 am on January 27, half the home was already up in flames. It was a big fire, but relatively routine: Working in the dark, the firefighters made sure the two residents got out unharmed, and got to work.Once they reached the roof, though, they ran into trouble. This home was covered in rigid, electrified solar panels—making it difficult for the firefighters to cut holes in the roof to let smoke and heat escape. Finally, they found enough open space around the panels to jockey an adequate hole. “Our guys had to do what they had to do,” says Paul King, Manchester’s deputy fire marshal. The cat inside didn’t make it.

It is unclear how the City of South Miami plans to address these concerns, but more answers could come as early as tomorrow night’s commission meeting. Industry watchers are keeping a close eye on the ordinance and how it could impact construction, safety, home values and the environment.



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