Amazon took solar rooftops offline last year after fires, explosions

Amazon turned off solar vitality programs in any respect of its U.S. services in 2021 after a rash of fires and explosions, together with one at its Fresno warehouse in 2020.

Fresno Fire Department

On the afternoon of April 14, 2020, dozens of firefighters arrived at an Amazon warehouse in Fresno, California, as thick plumes of smoke poured from the roof of the 880,000-square-foot warehouse.

Some 220 solar panels and different gear on the facility, often known as FAT1, had been broken by the three-alarm hearth, which was brought on by “an undetermined electrical event within the solar system mounted on top of the roof,” Leland Wilding, Fresno’s hearth investigator, wrote in an incident report.

Somewhat over a year later, about 60 firefighters had been known as to a fair bigger Amazon facility in Perryville, Maryland, to place out a two-alarm blaze, native information shops reported. 

In the intervening months, a minimum of 4 different Amazon achievement facilities caught hearth or skilled electrical explosions as a result of failures with their solar energy-generating programs, in response to inside firm paperwork seen by CNBC.

The paperwork, which have by no means been made public, point out that between April 2020 and June 2021, Amazon skilled “critical fire or arc flash events” in a minimum of six of its 47 North American websites with solar installations, affecting 12.7% of such services. Arc flashes are a type of electrical explosion.

“The rate of dangerous incidents is unacceptable, and above industry averages,” an Amazon worker wrote in one of many inside experiences.

The solar snafus underscore the problem Amazon and plenty of different massive companies face of their quest to shrink their environmental footprint and scale back reliance on fossil fuels. Amazon has been among the many most aggressive. In 2019, founder Jeff Bezos launched the Climate Pledge, promising the most important on-line retailer would zero out emissions by 2040, embrace renewable vitality and transfer away from gas-guzzling supply vans, together with by a billion-dollar-plus funding in electrical car firm Rivian.

Amazon’s studying curve with solar

Corporate America is below strain from regulators and a rising subset of buyers to set and report on environmental, social and governance (ESG) targets.

Many will be capable to reap monetary rewards for renewable vitality efforts after Congress in August handed the Inflation Reduction Act, which incorporates local weather provisions projected to scale back the nation’s carbon emissions by roughly 40% by 2030.

Commercial solar within the U.S. is anticipated to see 8% annual progress over the following 5 years, thanks partially to the laws, in response to Wood Mackenzie solar analyst Michelle Davis. Warehouses can take outsized benefit of solar, she stated, as a result of they’ve massive roofs and the programs can energy all of the HVAC, refrigeration and different energy-heavy programs situated inside.

But pricey and harmful points can come up.

Solar vitality programs on the roof of Amazon’s Fresno warehouse sparked a three-alarm hearth in 2020.

Fresno Fire Department

By June of last year, all of Amazon’s U.S. operations with solar needed to be taken offline briefly, inside paperwork present. The firm had to make sure its programs had been designed, put in and maintained correctly earlier than “re-energizing” any of them.

Amazon spokesperson Erika Howard instructed CNBC in a press release that the incidents concerned programs run by companions, and that the corporate responded by voluntarily turning off its solar-powered roofs.

“Out of an abundance of caution, following a small number of isolated incidents with onsite solar systems owned and operated by third parties, Amazon proactively powered off our onsite solar installations in North America, and took immediate steps to re-inspect each installation by a leading solar technical expert firm,” the assertion stated.

Those particulars did not present up in Amazon’s 100-page sustainability report for 2021, which was printed initially of August. In that report, obtainable to the general public by way of Amazon’s sustainability web site, the corporate stated rooftop solar was powering 115 of its achievement facilities throughout the globe by the tip of 2021, up from greater than 90 in the midst of the year. The majority of these are exterior the U.S.

“Many of our fulfillment facilities throughout the U.S., Europe, and India are powered by on-site solar, where a rooftop installation can power up to 80% of the facility’s energy use,” the report stated.

By April of this year, Amazon had onsite solar at 176 services, in response to its web site. The solar program was launched in 2017.

“As inspections are completed, our onsite solar systems are being powered back on,” Howard stated. “Amazon also built a team of dedicated solar experts overseeing the construction, operations, and maintenance of our systems in-house to ensure the safety of our systems.”

Excluded from the general public sustainability report is any point out of the bills Amazon incurs when there is a failure. An Amazon worker estimated, within the paperwork circulated internally, that every incident price the corporate a median of $2.7 million. Costs included third-party audits of rooftop solar programs, checks on how a lot electrical energy they had been producing and repairs for any damaged or defective components of the programs that inspectors recognized.

The Amazon worker additionally stated the corporate would lose $940,000 per 30 days, or $20,000 for every of the 47 decommissioned North American websites, so long as the solar remained offline. There may very well be extra prices for Amazon relying on contracts with clear vitality companions for renewable vitality credit, the paperwork present.

To date, Amazon has contracted with third-party distributors to design, then set up solar photovoltaic programs on rooftops and large backup batteries on website. Other main retailers, together with Walmart and Target, have additionally put in solar rooftops and adopted applications to trim their vitality payments and attain sustainability targets. 

In addition to its warehouses, Amazon has some solar roof programs at its Whole Foods shops. Amazon and its auditor, Clean Energy Associates (CEA), postpone inspection of the solar rooftop programs at Whole Foods areas till 2022, the paperwork stated. As of late 2021, 4 years after buying Whole Foods, Amazon was nonetheless working to realize technical details about the renewable vitality property on the shops.

Solar panels being put in on the roof of a Walmart retailer in California.


To keep tighter high quality management of its solar vitality programs, some Amazon workers really useful bringing extra operations in-house. The hearth in Perryville, Maryland, which was the sixth failure in a little bit over a year, spurred the corporate to take systematic motion.

On June 17, 2021, roughly every week after the fireplace on the warehouse often known as MDT2, Amazon’s sustainability division directed the house owners and builders of solar rooftop programs on its U.S. warehouses to decommission them. The solar rooftops would now not be producing electrical energy from the solar or producing renewable vitality credit.

Amazon then employed Denver-based CEA to conduct a third-party audit of its rooftop solar programs within the U.S., Asia-Pacific and Europe, Middle East and Africa area. 

Late last year, whereas CEA was nonetheless conducting its inspections, it knowledgeable Amazon of 1 essential and 259 main findings throughout Amazon’s rooftop solar portfolio. Problems included mismatched module-to-module connectors, improper set up of connectors, poor wire administration and proof of water intrusion within the inverters, inside paperwork stated. 

Issues with inverters, which convert solar vitality into usable electrical energy, had been recognized because the doubtless trigger of a fireplace in a minimum of one Amazon warehouse. Wilding, the Fresno hearth inspector, concluded the blaze at FAT1 “originated on or near two inverters,” in response to an investigation report obtained by CNBC by a request for public information.

Malfunctions and improper installations

Amazon blamed third-party companions and distributors for essentially the most important issues uncovered by CEA and different groups engaged on services and sustainability initiatives.

“Over the past five years, solar malfunctions have been caused by improper installation techniques, improper commissioning of a new system, inadequate system maintenance and equipment malfunction,” the paperwork stated.

Amazon groups engaged on services and sustainability initiatives devised a two-part plan to assist forestall future breakdowns within the rooftop solar program. 

In late 2021, the divisions requested $3.6 million in funding to reinspect websites the place main findings had been recognized with a view to make sure the programs had been protected to be introduced again on-line, in response to inside correspondence. 

Internal groups additionally started to induce Amazon management to rely extra on salaried workers and fewer on exterior distributors. Over time, the corporate employed extra solar consultants targeted on procurement, design, development and upkeep globally.

In some instances, administration was notably sluggish in responding. For instance, the teams inside the corporate agitating for change went to management for approval on the hiring, re-inspection and re-energizing plans. But the efforts had been held up for months by prime Amazon executives, together with Kara Hurst, vp of worldwide sustainability, and Alicia Boler-Davis, senior vp of world buyer achievement, who left the corporate in June 2022, in response to inside correspondence seen by CNBC.  

Amazon disputed the declare within the paperwork that management was sluggish to deal with worker requests.

Job openings counsel Amazon remains to be looking for to rent individuals internally for solar operations.

The firm was not too long ago searching for somebody to handle sustainability tasks throughout its North American services, which embody rooftop solar. There’s a present itemizing for a technical program associate on the solar staff says {that a} key facet of the place is collaborating with “internal partners” in worldwide design, solar development and sustainability, amongst different divisions.

As it tries to employees up, Amazon has acknowledged that going inexperienced comes with hurdles, notably for an organization “of the size and broad scope of Amazon.”

“But at Amazon, we don’t shy away from big challenges,” Hurst wrote, within the letter kicking off the 2021 sustainability report. “We don’t have all the answers today, but we believe in the need to act now.”

WATCH: How two associates fashioned Amazon’s first U.S. union and what’s subsequent


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