EU paves the way for a solar powered future

The fear of rising energy costs, alongside concerns around energy security following Russia’s attack on Ukraine, are pushing governments and agencies to find solutions that will safeguard our modern way of life. 

To this end, solar power offers both an exciting and clean solution, with the benefit of an infinite power source. The European Union has plans to make solar power the cornerstone of the EU energy sector, however this is not without risks. In this article we look at what this new legislation will mean for businesses and commercial clients.

In the European Union, the REPowerEU plan was created to advance the implementation of renewable energy sources. At the heart of this transition is solar energy which offers an affordable and reliable energy source for EU citizens with the additional security of domestic production virtually in any nation.  

To realise this vision, domestically manufactured solar power will be increasingly ramped up in the EU over the coming years. The initial plan is to significantly boost the deployment of renewable energy solutions, as proposed in the REPowerEU plan, which includes a legislative proposal involving a revision of the 2009 Renewable Energy Directive (RED), and related directives: Directive 2010/31/EU on the energy performance of buildings (the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, (EPBD)) and Directive 2012/27/EU known as the Energy Efficiency Directive (EED). 

A new obligation for Member States 

Businesses and industry are particularly interested in the revision of the EPBD that introduces a new obligation for Member States. Specifically, this addition will require commercial buildings to install solar energy solutions on all new public and commercial buildings that feature a useful floor area over 250 m2 by the end of 2026.  

Additionally, by the end of 2027, the requirement will extend to “all existing public and commercial buildings with a useful floor area over 250 m2.” This new legislation will finally be extended to include all new residential buildings by the end of 2029.  

EU measures will make the installation of solar panels on the rooftops of new buildings obligatory. Permit procedures for renewable energy projects will be streamlined, and actions taken will focus on improving the skills base in the solar sector alongside increasing the EU’s capacity to manufacture photovoltaic panels. 

Concerns remain 

Here we dive into some of the concerns and issues that still need to be resolved before building codes dictate the installation of solar panels and automatic shut-off switches. There is increased competition for land across most Member States, and technological concerns still exist in terms of reliable energy production. There is also a shortage of skilled labour in the renewable industry and significantly more solar panel producers are needed.  

The EU plan includes “doubling the current level of solar photovoltaic capacity by 2025 and producing almost 600 GW by 2030.” To reach this target, EU Member States will need to make a significant commitment to deploying renewable energy, including the planning and delivery of increased domestic solar production and the realisation of innovative technologies. At the core of these targets, non-EU dependencies for materials components and hardware are to be avoided.

What are the risks?

From an industrial perspective, businesses are generally very focused on fire safety, normally adhering to local standards and guidelines. Many companies also invest in training their personnel to maintain and use solar cells effectively.  

According to Anders Rørvik Ellingbø, Head of Risk Management Norway at If Insurance, “It is critical to understand the fire safety-related issues when making decisions to install extensive energy efficient solutions. Many of these technologies are new and with that comes new challenges.”  

From a fire safety perspective, using non-combustible materials between the panels and the roof will help to create a slight buffer. Similarly, coupling connections need to be covered securely, to keep the fire from escalating quickly. 

Anders notes that, “Non-combustible plates can mitigate somewhat, but if the fire and temperature accumulate then this is not enough, so we also recommend using non-combustible insulation, (e.g., mineral wool) to help mitigate the spread of fire. This has been proven in tests completed by If Insurance with clients.”  

Beyond the obvious issues with using water to extinguish electrically charged panels, roof cavities also trap heat. During a large fire event, commonly in commercial and private dwellings, the fire brigade will seek to create openings in the roof to ‘ventilate’ the building. With solar panels installed across the rooftop, it can be more difficult to execute this activity. 

Also, regular inspections and proper maintenance completed by qualified personnel are important to ensure fire safety

Anders Rørvik Ellingbø, Head of Risk Management Norway

Last but not least, the installation of digital or smart solutions, both in private smart homes and in industrial scale properties, should be considered for cyber risks. These should include several barriers that must be protected to ensure that these systems are functioning in a reliable and secure way. When extinguishing systems are dependent on sensor technology, the connection between these systems are key components of the smart home or office. There is a risk that these can be hacked or malfunction due to software errors.”

Installations according to standards adds protection

Many of the world’s solar panels in use today feature old technology, and this existing installation base is aging quickly. All mechanical equipment deteriorates over time, which means there is an increased fire risk in older panels.

To date, most research in solar panel fires has focused on rooftop installations, with very little research having been done with façade installations. It is important to understand that the challenges are not the same, however.

man solar panels

Anders explains that, “Regularly, panels are mounted on the roof, where the accumulation of heat radiates back down to the roof, leading quickly to increased temperatures. The role of insulation is also significant here. If the façade features a combustible installation, the fire holds a risk of spreading across the entire wall, due to a possible chimney effect behind the panels. The use of combustible materials in the vertical construction, i.e., wood, or combustible insulation inside the wall construction will dramatically increase this risk.”

Another recommendation is to install a shut-off switch to disconnect the solar panels from the electrical system. This will not de-electrify the panels, however in case of emergency, shutting off the power will help firefighters manage the fire.

Finally, building materials evolve, new technologies are launched, smart solutions are improving, so there is a lot happening in these areas today. For businesses and homeowners alike, the pace of development will hopefully add cost-saving measures, with increased efficiency and performance, as well as safer and reliable solutions. At the same time, more research will be needed to truly understand the risks today and, in the future, especially from a fire safety perspective.

Written by

Anders Rørvik Ellingbø