The pros and cons of solar panels

By Kevin Kuntz August 11, 2016

There are many ways to “go green”—vegetative roofs, lightweight construction materials, insulating materials, and photovoltaic (PV) solar panels are among the most popular. But what are the pros and cons of solar panels for the average property owner, firefighters, and insurers?

A photovoltaic solar panel system supplies usable solar power through the direct conversion of sunlight into electricity by absorbing photons of light and releasing electrons. The electrons are collected, creating an electric current and usable power. The process is an arrangement of several components, including solar panels to absorb and convert sunlight into electricity; a solar inverter to change the electric current from DC to AC; and mounting, cabling, and other electrical accessories to set up a working system. It may also use a solar tracking system to improve overall performance and include an integrated battery solution, as prices for storage devices are expected to decline.

Here are some of the benefits of PV solar panels:

  • They provide clean energy without combustion or greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Operating and maintenance costs for PV panels are low, almost insignificant compared with costs of other renewable energy systems.
  • They can be used nearly anywhere.
  • PV panels are silent, making them a perfect solution for urban and residential areas.
  • Homeowners can cut overall electricity spending with solar panels. (According to SolarEnergy.net, the average homeowner can save more than $1,000 a year by installing solar panels on the roof.)

Of course, like any power system, PV solar panels also have disadvantages:

  • PV panels are fragile; additional insurance is needed to safeguard a PV investment.
  • Start-up costs are high, even though maintenance and operation is inexpensive.
  • The energy source is only available during the day and restricted by clouds and rain.
  • PV panels require an inverter to produce AC current and a storage/grid connection for continuous use.

While the pros and cons of PV solar systems are clear for homeowners, underlying issues exist with regard to fire departments and insurers. From a fire risk perspective, the systems can add ignition sources, and the arrangement could facilitate the spread of exterior fire—especially if the roof is combustible and there’s a small gap between the panels and roof covering. For firefighters, PV solar systems can create shock hazards, and the extra weight of retrofitted panels and associated equipment can cause a building collapse. Solar panels can obstruct exterior hose stream application and inhibit roof ventilation.

Such issues complicate matters for insurers that need to measure the risk of buildings with PV panels. However, strong building code adoption and enforcement can address structural load requirements and proper installation of the PV system. Fire department standard operating procedures or operating guidelines can clarify response strategies and tactics. Identifying and preplanning these installations are essential components of effective response. Significant research regarding firefighting and photovoltaic panels has produced substantial data for fire departments to use in developing appropriate procedures. Such efforts can help mitigate the risks involved, allowing insurers to price policies accurately for property owners.

For more information on structural fire protection, visit ISO Community Hazard Mitigation.


Kevin Kuntz

Kevin Kuntz, assistant vice president and chief engineer for commercial lines underwriting Verisk Insurance Solutions.