US solar sector urged to take action to mitigate wildfire risk

Wildfires have cost the solar industry tens of millions of dollars in losses over the course of the last decade, GCube said. Image: Office of the Governor of California.

The US solar industry could face significant losses this summer unless steps are taken to mitigate wildfire risk over the coming months, renewables underwriter GCube has warned.

Wildfires are said to have cost the solar industry tens of millions of dollars in losses over the course of the last decade, and the risk of further damage is increasing as wildfires grow in size and severity across the US west.

According to GCube, solar project owners that do not appropriately manage this fire risk leave themselves and their assets vulnerable to higher losses, through component damage, compromised operations and liability exposure to third parties.

Better planning with regard to firefighting and vegetation management must be taken into account, said Fraser McLachlan, CEO of GCube, adding: “Obviously, solar projects need to be exposed to the elements in order to produce power, and while some may be robust to a greater or lesser extent in the face of most forms of extreme weather, they are all at high risk of damage during a wildfire event.”

A recent GCube report round that approximately half of all global claims for solar asset damage between 2010 and 2020 were caused by wildfires.

Though solar claims from natural perils remained relatively low in the first half of the decade, the rapid surge in natural catastrophe and extreme weather events, including tornados and wildfires, after 2015 has highlighted the vulnerability of solar projects to these threats, the research found.

Meanwhile, as the US bans the import of some solar products with links to China’s Xinjiang region, trade tensions further compound the risk of wildfire damage to solar infrastructure, GCube said, with strained supply networks meaning damaged panels could take longer to be repaired or replaced, potentially forcing whole arrays out of commission for months.

Across the US, more land has been burned so far this year than by the same point in both 2019 and 2020. The country recorded 35,086 wildfires between 1 January and 19 July that have scorched over 2.5 million acres, according to the US National Interagency Fire Center.

Last year saw solar output in parts of California affected by wildfires as airborne particles from smoke blocked out sunlight, causing generation to decline in September.

PV Tech recently spoke to McLachlan to discuss how to ‘weatherise’ a solar installation, as part of a feature that appeared in its quarterly magazine PV Tech Power.