Some see rooftop photo voltaic panels and batteries as a enterprise alternative, or a path to vitality independence. For firefighters, they pose new forms of danger that they ignore at their very own peril.

The rooftop photo voltaic trade is rising steadily, and now tens of hundreds of house batteries are getting put in per yr within the U.S. However clear vitality gear not often reveals up in firefighter coaching. To fill in that hole, Captain Richard Birt, a 30-year veteran of Las Vegas Fireplace and Rescue, spends his free time crisscrossing the West to supply coaching in protected photo voltaic and battery response.

“Electrical energy, identical to water, goes to move the best approach attainable,” Birt mentioned at a coaching in late September. “Don’t let your physique be the pipe.”

Photo voltaic and batteries can save lives, Birt contends, by preserving medical units powered up throughout emergencies. Doing so reduces the amount of emergency calls that flood in when the facility goes out. Birt has even used photo voltaic and batteries to revive energy at hearth departments in Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria smashed the electrical grid in 2017. 

Distributed photo voltaic and batteries are upending the centralized grid structure of the final century, in different phrases. However they’re additionally shifting the paradigm for firefighting. 

“This has modified all the things,” Birt mentioned. “There are circumstances the place the facility goes out, however the energy’s now not out.”

Birt was main a workshop at CalFire’s Riverside advanced, addressing a number of dozen responders who had simply handed the Firefighter 2 examination, and would deploy to fireplace traces as full-fledged professionals the next week. They’re among the many greater than 1,000 firefighters he is educated along with his Photo voltaic and Fireplace Schooling curriculum, spanning dozens of communities up and down the size of California. The hope is that they’ll unfold what they discovered throughout the state that leads the nation in photo voltaic and battery adoption. 

Dimension up the chance

Firefighters should acknowledge clear vitality gear they might encounter at home fires, and take steps to neutralize any dangers the gear may pose to the operation.

At a standard home name, that begins with turning off the move of electrical energy from the grid, together with chopping fuel and water. As soon as the “utilities are safe,” the crew can proceed to rescue individuals and douse fires with out risking electrical shock.

These security guidelines change when photo voltaic panels are concerned. Firefighters who need to reduce a gap within the roof to let smoke vent danger being shocked if their axes chop right into a conduit carrying energy from the photo voltaic array to an inverter or cost controller. 

Masking the panels with a black tarp blocks the photovoltaic course of, Birt instructed, making it protected to cut into the roof. However what if the photo voltaic panels are on hearth? Simply spray not less than 100 to 150 gallons of water per minute via a 1 ¾ inch hose to place it out, he mentioned. Photo voltaic output is not robust sufficient to zap anyone via that water stream.

Birt demonstrates rooftop photo voltaic operations with a prop at a coaching for Cal Fireplace in San Diego. (Picture courtesy of Richard Birt)

Burning batteries are one other hazard. If a battery pack is on hearth in a storage, firefighters ought to use the identical hose association to place it out safely. However they need to additionally placed on full protecting gear, together with a self-contained respiration equipment, as a result of burning batteries additionally launch noxious gases.

Even after placing out a battery hearth, the thermal runaway response in battery cells could cause reignition later. Which means firefighters ought to hold dousing the batteries after the hearth is extinguished to carry them again to ambient temperature. As soon as a battery pack has been handled, the home-owner ought to name up the corporate that put in it to have it safely eliminated, Birt mentioned.

Utility-scale: An entire totally different ballgame

Utility-scale batteries pose an altogether stronger menace, with racks and racks of battery cells packed into cupboards or containers. Fires at such services within the U.S. have been extraordinarily uncommon, they usually’re outfitted with self-contained hearth supression gear to place them out when the do happen. 

However in 2019, a utlity-scale battery hearth in Arizona led to an explosion that despatched 4 firefighters to the hospital. That battery unit’s hearth suppression stopped flames, however allowed explosive gases to construct up contained in the container, which ignited quickly after the responders opened the door.

That incident set off a sequence of investigations, and prompted vitality storage suppliers to incorporate air flow and different security options, to keep away from a repeat.

Vitality storage deployments are rising quickly. Annual U.S. deployments will double in 2020, topping 1 gigawatt for the primary time, based on information from Wooden Mackenzie. Such a infrastructure is one thing firefighters might be seeing extra of.

Birt’s recommendation is to liken battery crops to extra acquainted types of high-voltage gear, like transformer farms, or the electrical vaults that provide energy to casinos on the Vegas strip. These are the province of utility consultants.

“If you wish to reside, don’t go into the electrical vault,” Birt mentioned, quoting the coaching for Las Vegas responders.

If firefighters encounter a large-scale battery hearth, they should combat the urge to take brave motion.

“There may be nothing that you are able to do in there that’s going to mitigate that incident,” he mentioned. “It’s simply going to kill you.”

If a utility battery hearth isn’t threatening any lives, firefighters ought to undertake a defensive technique, Birt mentioned. That features marking off a fringe, preserving individuals not less than 50 to 100 ft away, and stopping the hearth from spreading past the battery set up.

A cohort of firefighters put together for Birt’s photo voltaic and battery coaching at Cal Fireplace’s Ione facility. (Picture courtesy of Richard Birt)

Photo voltaic and batteries’ life-saving potential

Birt, who retires this yr from the Las Vegas hearth division, doesn’t earn a wage for this work. His journey bills are coated by Sunrun, the main rooftop photo voltaic installer. The connection stems from Birt’s expertise putting in photo voltaic and battery techniques in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, and has grown via his work coaching firefighters in a state dealing with huge wildfires. 

“[Captain Birt] has watched firsthand how local weather change is resulting in extra fires and placing a rising variety of human lives in danger,” mentioned Sunrun spokesperson Andy Newbold. “We all know he firmly believes that we have to deploy extra of this know-how as rapidly as attainable, and we’re 100 % aligned with that imaginative and prescient.”

Sunrun additionally works with firefighters on creating constructing codes and allowing necessities, together with the SolarApp initiative to digitize and automate photo voltaic permits, he added.

Photo voltaic and batteries can drive firefighters to shift their techniques, however Birt is a photo voltaic and battery proponent. That is as a result of he sees them as serving to responders with their mission of saving lives.

Blackouts rapidly grow to be a matter of life and demise for individuals who want refrigerated insulin, or an bronchial asthma nebulizer, or pumped oxygen to breathe. When these individuals lose energy—whether or not from a storm or the utility-driven preventive energy shutoffs which have grow to be an annual routine in California—they name 911.

Backup energy offers medically weak households the facility to care for themselves. That, in flip, frees responders to deal with fires or different emergencies.

“Who offers with them?” Birt requested. “Do the facility firms take care of them? Do the politicians take care of them? We take care of them.”

Birt demonstrates the sort of gear firefighters can anticipate finding at houses outfitted with rooftop photo voltaic and battery storage. (Picture courtesy of Richard Birt)

Readers can be taught extra about Captain Birt’s photo voltaic and battery firefighting coaching by emailing him at

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