Fire incidents related to solar panel malfunctions are a rare occurrence, but when the fiasco involves two of the world’s largest industry giants, Walmart and Tesla, it becomes a difficult thing to keep quiet. Reports of Tesla’s solar panels spontaneously combusting on top of Walmart’s rooftops spread like wildfire itself, shrouding Tesla in public scrutiny.
The fundamental problem came down to Tesla’s choice for panel installer, SolarCity. Reports claim that SolarCity failed to install the panels correctly, neglecting proper procedures and system protocols. The issue was in the installation, not in the Tesla panels themselves.
Tesla goes to great lengths to declare and prove through demonstration the safety of its electrical products. However, the business of solar panels and the process of installing them involves far more factors than just the quality of the electrical units themselves. The conflict demanded that Tesla answer for far more than just faulty devices. Read on to learn more about what really happened and whether you should be concerned.
What Really Happened in the Tesla Fire
The one good thing that you can stand to acknowledge from all of this is that nobody got hurt. A firefighter in California had to be treated for smoke inhalation after combating one of the superstore fires, but aside from some presumably scorched rooftops and singed reputations, no other damages were incurred.
With that damage cap established, you can wade into the nitty-gritty of the controversy. When observed from a well-rounded standpoint, the entire incident can be boiled down to three primary sequences of events:
- Walmart’s decision to go green
- A historical contract between Walmart and SolarCity
- The poor installation job done by SolarCity
These three elements lead up to the fires that cause the controversy.
The Walmart Approach to Renewable Energy
This story actually starts all the way back in 2005 when Walmart tried to regain some of the world’s admiration (or, at the very least, tolerance) by stating that it was embarking on the journey to become 100 percent renewable energy sustainable. It was a hefty claim which had to stand up to an already-established substantial public skepticism.
Walmart actually followed through. It set specific goals for renewable energy consumption and created a manifesto called the Walmart Approach to Renewable Energy. By doing so, it added its name to the growing list of high-profile companies like Apple and Google, paving the way in the global green energy collaboration.
Walmart and SolarCity
Despite the retail giant’s initial hesitation to enter into long-term contracts with companies focused on renewable energy, Walmart’s new manifesto claimed the company had now “become comfortable with longer contracts.” They attributed the change in perspective to new information and education.
The company’s strong words were put into action. Soon after the public shift in perspective, Walmart entered into a long-term contract with a solar panel installation company called SolarCity, which Tesla would later acquire from none other than Elon Musk’s cousin. SolarCity became the primary solar panel installer for Walmart stores across the country.
SolarCity’s Poor Installation Practices
Though Walmart aimed the official lawsuit directly against Tesla, it included SolarCity as an essential complicit piece of the puzzle—and rightly so. Tesla had employed SolarCity to install all of its solar energy panels on Walmart’s rooftops. Regardless of who took the blame, the error came down to SolarCity’s failure to install the solar panels correctly.
The nexus point of the lawsuit read as follows: “To state the obvious, properly designed, installed, inspected, and maintained solar systems do not spontaneously combust.” The lawsuit claimed that SolarCity (and by default, Tesla) grounded the electrical wiring incorrectly and missed several visual defects on the units themselves.
Tesla’s Relationship with SolarCity
By 2016, SolarCity, which was being run by Elon Musk’s two cousins, Peter and Lyndon Rive, was reaching a critical low point. Musk had helped the company get started in 2006, and for nearly 10 years, it surged in success. By 2016 however, SolarCity had fallen into $3.4 billion of debt and was facing inevitable destruction.
That year, Musk unveiled a double-edged salvation plan:
- He would rescue his cousins’ solar panel business from financial demise.
- At the same time, he would play the role of a global hero in saving the world from death by fossil fuels.
At an event in Universal Studios, on the set of Desperate Housewives, he announced his purchase of SolarCity.
It was a brilliant plan, and the public loved it. Tesla bought SolarCity for about $2.8 billion. Not only had Musk lent a helping hand to his cousins, but he had gained a massively strategic advantage in the market of renewable energy. He now had an efficient way to market and sell his most recent product at the time, the Tesla Powerwall.
The Tesla Powerwall
One year before the merger of SolarCity with Tesla, in 2015, Tesla announced its latest gadget to enable living an energy-sustainable life. The Powerwall.
- The Powerwall is essentially a rechargeable battery pack for the home.
- It is charged by solar energy.
- The Powerwall can replace a portion of home energy consumption and function as a generator during blackouts.
The signature intention was to reduce electrical bills and simultaneously decrease conventional energy consumptions. It was presumably Tesla’s next significant step in transitioning the world further into green energy consumption with the goal of ultimately reaching full renewable sustainability.
The acquisition of SolarCity, therefore, was a perfect match. Tesla already had the Powerwall, which functioned as the energy storage component, and it would now have SolarCity to install the solar panels which would feed the home battery pack. It was both a practical solution and a financial stroke of genius.
The Tesla Solar Roof
During the announcement of the merger, Musk also revealed the new key component that would tie it all together. Tesla had developed their own solar panel prototypes, and true to Tesla’s value for aesthetics, these premiered a product of fashion as well as function.
- The solar panels themselves are made to look like actual roof shingles.
- At first glance, they would look like a regular rooftop, entirely inconspicuous.
- However, the Solar Roof array operates as fully functional solar panels, absorbing sunlight and transferring the energy down to the Powerwall battery pack, which itself can fit neatly inside or outside the house.
The Solar Roof excelled so well in its camouflage that during the announcement event, none of the crowd realized that all the houses around them were equipped with Tesla’s Solar Roof panels until Musk pointed it out. The gimmick had its intended effect. The already-enthusiastic public was sold.
The Tesla Fire Controversy
There appeared to be several questionable details in the sequence of events before Walmart’s lawsuit, starting back from the beginning of Tesla’s purchase of SolarCity. The main points of contention come down to three issues:
- Allegations claiming Tesla ignored the warning signs
- Customer complaints
- Claims regarding negligent installations
By 2019, Tesla had already installed its solar panels on over 240 of Walmart’s stores across the country. By that same year, Walmart claimed that a grand total of seven of its stores had caught fire due to Tesla’s panels. Then the lawsuit was filed, and Walmart called for Tesla to remove the solar panels from all the locations.
Tesla’s Solar Field Quality Manager
The CNBC reported about an interview with Steven Henkes, Tesla’s former solar field quality manager, who filed a lawsuit against Tesla after being fired from the company. Henkes claimed that he had raised safety concerns with Tesla regarding their solar panel installations but that they failed to act in response to the concerns.
Henkes stated that he then filed a complaint with the US Consumer Product Safety Commission against Tesla. According to the interview, this was the reason Tesla fired him. Tesla itself officially denied Henkes claims.
Complaints Against Tesla
By 2019, several other individuals had also stated complaints relating to Tesla’s solar energy panel products. An Amazon warehouse reported a fire caused by panels installed by Tesla, and many homeowners have recorded complaints both against the quality of Tesla’s solar panels and its poor customer service.
Following the merger with Tesla, SolarCity had risen once again to nearly first place among solar panel installation companies, but by 2019, it had started to decline. To reiterate the main point, however, the common supposition is that the fault lay primarily in SolarCity’s installation practices and less in Tesla’s products themselves.
Negligent Installation Practices
The crux of Steven Henkes’ reports against Tesla revolved around the claim that Tesla had been aware of defects in the solar panel installations for several years and had allegedly failed to inform their customers about the safety concerns. His opinion was that there continued to be a serious fire threat associated with Tesla’s panels.
In regard to the solar panels that Tesla had installed in the Walmart locations, Henke stated in his lawsuit that Tesla used dangerous and defective Amphenol H4 connectors and that these posed a risk of malfunctioning and triggering electrical fires. His lawsuit claimed that Tesla ignored risks associated with the installation defects.
Tesla’s Reputation in the Solar Panel Market
Since 2016, when Tesla officially entered the solar energy panel market with SolarCity, they had already installed solar panels on more than 60,000 residential homes. That did not even include the commercial and government buildings, of which about 500 hired SolarCity to install Tesla’s solar panels.
Thanks to Tesla and other successful companies, as of 2020, over 2 million locations across the country, both residential and commercial, have received solar panel installations. Though the vast majority of residential homes still use conventional energy methods, it has definitely become commonplace to see homes powered by solar light.
That being said, solar panel defects are an extremely rare occurrence overall, and to have a solar panel actually catch fire is even rarer.
- In 2017, a statistic emerged stating that merely 1 in every 2,000 panels actually developed any defects.
- That translated to about 0.05% of all solar panels across every brand.
Within that time frame, however, about 2.9 percent of the solar energy panels that SolarCity installed on Walmart’s roofs went up in flames. The percentage only accounts for those solar panels specifically associated with Walmart, a total of 240, and not all of Tesla’s other panels in other locations, but the comparison is still quite stark.
What About the Tesla Powerwall?
Lithium-ion batteries are often a focus of public scrutiny, despite their continuous rise in application and popularity. A massive amount of protocol and safety regulations go into handling and usage of lithium-ion energy storage units, especially now that they are on the rise even in residential buildings.
Tesla seems to have aimed the focus of its renewable energy campaign onto both the mobile and stationary sectors of human affairs. For mobile transportation, they created their electric cars. For stationary sustainability, they created the PowerWall and its accompanying counterparts to fuel residential homes with sustainable green energy.
When the Tesla Powerwall debuted in 2015, it was presented as the solution to home energy costs and personal carbon footprints. The Powerwall appeared alongside its bigger brother, the Powerpack, which functioned as the version to use for large businesses and industrial buildings.
The Powerwall and Powerpack were well-received. Businesses and residential homes alike made use of the technology and reported optimistic results. It became a popular renewable energy choice for both Tesla fans and people who simply wanted to do their part in stewarding the planet.
Powerwall Pricing and Specs
At the time of its release, the Tesla Powerwall was priced depending upon two different energy output capacities: About $3,000 for 7 kilowatt-hours worth of energy and $3,500 for 10 kilowatt-hours worth of energy. This did not include the price of installation or the Gateway, and customers would still have to factor in the price of the panels themselves.
Now, as of May 2021, the price has increased significantly, in part due to improvements to new iterations of the Powerwall.
- One Powerwall battery alone now costs about $7,500.
- Including the installation and the Gateway, the total price could come out to about $12,000.
Naturally, the slightly larger Powerpack would sell for a higher price. Since its launch, however, Tesla released an even larger battery storage pack called the Megapack. The Megapack has essentially taken over. As Elon Musk himself stated, “Powerpack is an older product. Megapack is what we now ship to utility or heavy industrial users.”
Tesla has adamantly stated that its Powerwall cannot be installed into a house that already has solar panels installed. To purchase and install a Powerpack, you would have to hire Tesla to additionally install its own solar panels. This is a policy that only came into effect within the last couple of years.
How Safe Are Tesla’s Battery Packs?
In light of the events surrounding Tesla’s solar energy panels, this becomes an exceedingly legitimate question to ask. Just how safe are the Powerwall, Powerpack, and Megapack? Homeowners are attaching them to the walls of their homes both inside and outside. Can we really entrust our livelihood to them?
The short answer is yes.
- Rigorous safety regulations for lithium-ion battery storage across the country set a strict standard for companies manufacturing and selling battery storage units.
- Individual states have their own numerous protocols laying out detailed regulations for the storage of lithium-ion battery packs.
In 2016, after the announcement of Tesla’s Powerwall and Powerpack, the National Fire Protection Association conducted a series of experiments on a Tesla Powerpack, overheating it past its threshold to observe how it would react in the event of malfunction or exposure to external flames.
The first test attempted to overheat the internals of the Powerpack from the inside. After a few minutes, portions of the internals were damaged, but no fires or explosions ensued. Aside from some smoke billowing out of the vents, there were no other observable reactions.
This proved that the Powerpack could not spontaneously combust from overheating itself. The next test involved placing a propane burner up against the outside of the Powerpack. Flames appeared only after one entire hour of running the burner at full blast. All in all, the Powerpack performed impressively well in the experiment.
Project Titan and Tesla’s Response
Despite Walmart dropping the lawsuit against Tesla due to an out-of-court settlement, the lawsuit involving its former employee, Steven Henkes, is still ongoing. It has yet to be seen what will come of the investigation, and though Tesla has remained mostly silent, you can still see some degree of action on their part.
- In the summer of 2018, Tesla launched an inconspicuous project to inspect and replace its defective solar energy panel components installed across various locations.
- The initiative was called Project Titan. Not much has been gleaned from Tesla about the project, but it does not seem to have solved quite all its problems just yet.
According to another former employee, Tesla had formerly outsourced the maintenance work on its solar panels, but it now seems to be pulling back from many of those contracts and attempting to handle the projects in-house.
These Walmart fires were certainly not the first time Tesla has had to endure public scrutiny and courtroom conflict. They may not even be the last. Innovation inevitably receives the spotlight sometimes for better or for worse.
You can bet, however, that it will take a lot more than this to bring the company down. Despite its faults and failures, it is still at the lead in renewable energy sustainability and only seems to be reaching greater heights.