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Amazon took its solar rooftops offline last year after fires and explosions

Amazon will shut down solar energy systems at all US facilities in 2021 after a spate of fires and explosions, including one at its Fresno warehouse in 2020.

Fresno Fire Department

Dozens of firefighters arrived at an Amazon warehouse in Fresno, California on the afternoon of April 14, 2020, as thick smoke rose from the roof of the 880,000-square-foot warehouse.

About 220 solar panels and other equipment at the facility, known as FAT1, were damaged by three alarm fires caused by “undetermined electrical events within the roof-mounted solar system.” Leland Wilding, a Fresno fire investigator, wrote in the incident report.

A little over a year later, about 60 firefighters were called to a larger Amazon facility in Perryville, Maryland, to extinguish the flames in two alarms, local news outlets reported.

In the intervening months, at least four other Amazon fulfillment centers experienced fires and electrical explosions due to failures in solar energy generation systems, according to internal documents seen by CNBC.

According to documents that have never been made public, between April 2020 and June 2021, Amazon experienced “significant fires or arc flashes” at at least six of its 47 solar facilities in North America. “event”, impacting 12.7% of such facilities. An arc flash is a type of electrical explosion.

“The rate of dangerous incidents is unacceptable and above industry averages,” an Amazon employee wrote in one of its internal reports.

Solar Snuffs highlights the challenges Amazon and many other large companies face in shrinking their environmental footprint and reducing their dependence on fossil fuels. Amazon was the most aggressive. In 2019, founder Jeff Bezos launched The Climate Pledge to help the largest online retailer make his 2040 zero-emissions, renewable-energy, gasoline-intensive delivery journey. We promised to get out of the van. This includes his $1 billion-plus investment in electric vehicle company Rivian. .

Amazon’s learning curve for solar

US companies are under pressure from regulators and a growing number of investors to set and report environmental, social and governance (ESG) targets.

Renewable energy efforts could reap economic rewards after parliament passed the Inflation Reduction Act in August, which includes a climate clause expected to reduce the country’s carbon emissions by about 40% by 2030. You will be able to.

According to Wood Mackenzie solar analyst Michelle Davis, US commercial solar power is expected to grow 8% annually over the next five years, thanks in part to the legislation. The warehouse has a large roof, and the system can power all the HVAC, refrigeration, and other energy-hungry systems inside, making great use of the sun, she said. I was.

However, expensive and dangerous problems can arise.

A solar energy system on the roof of Amazon’s Fresno warehouse caused three alarm fires in 2020.

Fresno Fire Department

According to internal documents, by June of last year, all of Amazon’s solar operations in the US had to be temporarily suspended. The company needed to ensure that the system was properly designed, installed and maintained before it could be “rebooted.”

In a statement to CNBC, Amazon spokeswoman Erika Howard said the incident involved a system operated by a partner, and the company responded by voluntarily turning off its solar roof.

“Out of an abundance of caution, following a small number of isolated incidents at onsite solar systems owned and operated by third parties, Amazon proactively turned off its North American onsite solar installations and restarted each installation. We immediately took steps to inspect it, a leading solar technology specialist company,” the statement said.

These details did not appear in Amazon’s 100-page sustainability report for 2021, published in early August. The company says its rooftop solar will power 115 of its fulfillment centers around the world by the end of 2021.Most of them are outside the US

“Many fulfillment facilities in the U.S., Europe and India are powered by on-site solar power, with up to 80% of their facility energy usage on their rooftops,” the report said. I’m here.

By April of this year, Amazon had installed onsite solar in 176 of its facilities, according to its website. The solar program started in 2017.

“Once the inspection is complete, the onsite solar system will be powered back on,” Howard said. “Amazon has also built a team of dedicated solar experts to oversee the construction, operation and maintenance of the system in-house to ensure the security of the system.”

Excluded from the published sustainability report is any mention of costs Amazon will incur in the event of failure. In documents circulated internally, Amazon employees estimated that one incident cost the company an average of $2.7 million. Costs included a third-party audit of the rooftop solar system, a power yield check, and repairs to damaged or defective portions of the system identified by the inspector.

Amazon employees also said the company would lose $940,000 a month, or $20,000 for each of its 47 North American sites that are decommissioned, as long as solar remains offline. Additional costs may be incurred by Amazon depending on the agreement with the clean energy partner.

To this day, Amazon contracts with a third-party vendor to install a solar power system on the roof and a large backup battery on site.Other majors Retailers such as Walmart and Target have also adopted programs to install solar rooftops, reduce energy bills and meet sustainability goals.

In addition to warehouses, Amazon has several solar roof systems at Whole Foods stores. It has postponed the inspection of the power system, the document said. As of late 2021, four years after the Whole Foods acquisition, Amazon was still working to obtain technical information about renewable energy assets in its stores.

Solar panels on the roof of a Walmart store in California.

walmart

To maintain tighter quality control of its solar energy systems, some Amazon employees recommended bringing more operations in-house. The fire in Perryville, Maryland, the sixth such failure in just over a year, has prompted the company to act in a coordinated manner.

On June 17, 2021, about a week after the warehouse fire known as MDT2, Amazon’s sustainability department asked owners and developers of solar rooftop systems in US warehouses to phase them out. instructed. Solar rooftops will no longer generate electricity from the sun or generate renewable energy credits.

Subsequently, Amazon hired Denver-based CEA to conduct third-party audits of rooftop solar systems in the US, Asia Pacific, Europe, Middle East, and Africa regions.

Late last year, while still conducting inspections, the CEA notified Amazon of one key finding and 259 major findings across Amazon’s rooftop solar portfolio. According to internal documents, the problems included mismatched connectors between modules, improperly seated connectors, poor wire management, and evidence of water intrusion into the inverter.

A problem with an inverter that converts solar energy into usable power has been identified as a likely cause in at least one Amazon warehouse. Wilding, a Fresno fire inspector, concluded that the fire at FAT1 “occurred on or near two inverters,” according to an investigative report obtained by CNBC through a public records request. .

Malfunction and improper installation

Amazon has blamed third-party partners and vendors for the most significant issues found by the CEA and other teams working on facilities and sustainability initiatives.

“Over the past five years, improper installation techniques, improper commissioning of new systems, improper system maintenance, and equipment malfunction have caused solar power plant failures,” the document said. there is

An Amazon team working on facilities and sustainability initiatives has devised a two-part plan to prevent future failures of its rooftop solar program.

In the second half of 2021, the divisions will invest $3.6 million to re-inspect sites where key findings have been identified to ensure systems are safe to bring back online, according to internal communications. requested funds.

Internal teams also began pushing Amazon management to become less dependent on outside vendors and more dependent on salaried workers. Over time, the company has hired more solar professionals worldwide with a focus on procurement, design, construction and maintenance.

In some cases, management was noticeably slow to respond. For example, groups that instigate change within Recruitment, re-inspection, approval of revitalization plan. But Amazon’s top executives, including Kara Hurst, vice president of global sustainability, and Alicia Boller-Davies, senior vice president of global customer fulfillment, who left the company in June 2022 , the effort was postponed for many months. By CNBC.

Job listings suggest that Amazon is still looking to hire in-house for its solar business.

The company was recently looking for someone to manage sustainability projects across its North American facilities, including rooftop solar. On the Solar team’s current list of technical program partners, a key aspect of this position is working with ‘internal partners’ in sectors such as design, solar construction and sustainability around the world.

As Amazon seeks to hire more people, it acknowledges that there are hurdles to going green, especially for companies “of Amazon’s size and reach.”

In the opening letter to the 2021 Sustainability Report, Hurst said, “But at Amazon, we don’t hesitate to take on big challenges. We don’t have all the answers today, but we need to act now.” believe.”

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