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Solar panels: firefighters' clean-energy foe

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Reuters/File

(Read caption) A worker cleans solar panels on the rooftop of the Yiwu International Trade City in Yiwu, Zhejiang province in China. The spread of rooftop solar has made firefighting more challenging.

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The proliferation of solar power may have at least one downside: It makes firefighting harder.  

Firefighters say solar panels can block access to buildings in emergency situations, make it harder to cut holes in the roof to release flames and gases, and pose threats from tripping to electrocution. With more and more photovoltaic systems going up on homes and businesses across the United States, it's a growing problem.

Even solar advocates concede there's a challenge, although they say it can be mitigated.

"We are working very closely with firefighters across the United States on the development of codes and standards. After every incident, we learn from it and improve," Ken Johnson, a spokesman for the Solar Energy Industries Association trade group, told Reuters. "Firefighters don't have a good idea of how solar works. It's incumbent in us to do a better job in educating them."

Rooftop access is critical in firefighting operations because it allows for the creation of ventilation shafts that release trapped flames and superheated gases. It also helps firefighters locate the origin of the fire and any victims. The spread of rooftop solar has made that task more challenging. 

"With PV arrays now covering large areas of roofs, firefighters are limited in where they can cut and where they can exit the roof," Matthew Paiss, a fire engineer for the San Jose Fire Department in California, wrote in Home Power, a renewable energy publication. "Since the PV modules cannot be cut through, and moving them is time-consuming and potentially dangerous, rooftop PV systems pose some risks—mainly shock and trip hazards."

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