Amazon took solar rooftops offline last year after fires, explosions

Amazon turned off photo voltaic power techniques in any respect of its U.S. amenities in 2021 after a rash of fires and explosions, together with one at its Fresno warehouse in 2020.

Fresno Fireplace Division

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 photo voltaic panels and different tools on the facility, generally known as FAT1, have been broken by the three-alarm fireplace, which was attributable to “an undetermined electrical occasion throughout the photo voltaic system mounted on prime of the roof,” Leland Wilding, Fresno’s fireplace investigator, wrote in an incident report.

Slightly over a 12 months later, about 60 firefighters have been known as to a fair bigger Amazon facility in Perryville, Maryland, to place out a two-alarm blaze, local news outlets reported

Within the intervening months, not less than 4 different Amazon achievement facilities caught fireplace or skilled electrical explosions resulting from failures with their photo voltaic energy-generating techniques, in accordance with inner firm paperwork considered by CNBC.

The paperwork, which have by no means been made public, point out that between April 2020 and June 2021, Amazon skilled “vital fireplace or arc flash occasions” in not less than six of its 47 North American websites with photo voltaic installations, affecting 12.7% of such amenities. Arc flashes are a form of electrical explosion.

“The speed of harmful incidents is unacceptable, and above trade averages,” an Amazon worker wrote in one of many inner stories.

The photo voltaic snafus underscore the problem Amazon and lots of different giant firms face of their quest to shrink their environmental footprint and cut back reliance on fossil fuels. Amazon has been among the many most aggressive. In 2019, founder Jeff Bezos launched the Local weather Pledge, promising the biggest on-line retailer would zero out emissions by 2040, embrace renewable power and transfer away from gas-guzzling supply vans, together with via a billion-dollar-plus funding in electrical car firm Rivian.

Amazon’s studying curve with photo voltaic

Solar energy systems on the roof of Amazon’s Fresno warehouse sparked a three-alarm fire in 2020.

Fresno Fire Department

By June of last year, all of Amazon’s U.S. operations with solar had to be taken offline temporarily, internal documents show. The company had to ensure its systems were designed, installed and maintained properly before “re-energizing” any of them.

Amazon spokesperson Erika Howard told CNBC in a statement that the incidents involved systems run by partners, and that the company 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 statement said.

Those details didn’t show up in Amazon’s 100-page sustainability report for 2021, which was printed at the start of August. In that report, obtainable to the general public through Amazon’s sustainability web site, the corporate mentioned rooftop photo voltaic 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 12 months. Nearly all of these are outdoors the U.S.

“A lot of our achievement amenities all through the U.S., Europe, and India are powered by on-site photo voltaic, the place a rooftop set up can energy as much as 80% of the ability’s power use,” the report mentioned.

By April of this 12 months, Amazon had onsite photo voltaic at 176 amenities, in accordance with its web site. The photo voltaic program was launched in 2017.

“As inspections are accomplished, our onsite photo voltaic techniques are being powered again on,” Howard mentioned. “Amazon additionally constructed a staff of devoted photo voltaic specialists overseeing the development, operations, and upkeep of our techniques in-house to make sure the protection of our techniques.”

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. Prices included third-party audits of rooftop photo voltaic techniques, checks on how a lot electrical energy they have been producing and repairs for any damaged or defective components of the techniques that inspectors recognized.

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

So far, Amazon has contracted with third-party distributors to design, then set up photo voltaic photovoltaic techniques on rooftops and large backup batteries on web site. Different main retailers, together with Walmart and Goal, have additionally put in photo voltaic rooftops and adopted applications to trim their power payments and attain sustainability targets. 

Along with its warehouses, Amazon has some photo voltaic roof techniques at its Complete Meals shops. Amazon and its auditor, Clear Power Associates (CEA), postpone inspection of the photo voltaic rooftop techniques at Complete Meals places till 2022, the paperwork mentioned. As of late 2021, 4 years after buying Complete Meals, Amazon was nonetheless working to realize technical details about the renewable power property on the shops.

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


To keep up tighter high quality management of its photo voltaic power techniques, some Amazon staff beneficial bringing extra operations in-house. The hearth in Perryville, Maryland, which was the sixth failure in somewhat over a 12 months, spurred the corporate to take systematic motion.

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

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

Late final 12 months, whereas CEA was nonetheless conducting its inspections, it knowledgeable Amazon of 1 vital and 259 main findings throughout Amazon’s rooftop photo voltaic portfolio. Issues included mismatched module-to-module connectors, improper set up of connectors, poor wire administration and proof of water intrusion within the inverters, inner paperwork mentioned. 

Points with inverters, which convert photo voltaic power into usable electrical energy, have been recognized because the doubtless trigger of a fireplace in not less than one Amazon warehouse. Wilding, the Fresno fireplace inspector, concluded the blaze at FAT1 “originated on or close to two inverters,” in accordance with an investigation report obtained by CNBC via a request for public data.

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 amenities and sustainability initiatives.

“Over the previous 5 years, photo voltaic malfunctions have been attributable to improper set up strategies, improper commissioning of a brand new system, insufficient system upkeep and tools malfunction,” the paperwork mentioned.

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

In late 2021, the divisions requested $3.6 million in funding to reinspect websites the place main findings have been recognized in an effort to make sure the techniques have been secure to be introduced again on-line, in accordance with inner correspondence. 

Inner groups additionally started to induce Amazon management to rely extra on salaried staff and fewer on outdoors distributors. Over time, the corporate employed extra photo voltaic specialists centered on procurement, design, building and upkeep globally.

In some instances, administration was notably gradual 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. However the efforts have been held up for months by prime Amazon executives, together with Kara Hurst, vice chairman of worldwide sustainability, and Alicia Boler-Davis, senior vice chairman of worldwide buyer achievement, who left the company in June 2022, according to internal correspondence viewed by CNBC.  

Amazon disputed the claim in the documents that leadership was slow to address employee requests.

Job openings suggest Amazon is still seeking to hire people internally for solar operations.

The company was recently looking for someone to manage sustainability projects across its North American facilities, which include rooftop solar. There’s a current listing for a technical program companion on the photo voltaic staff says {that a} key facet of the place is collaborating with “inner companions” in worldwide design, photo voltaic building and sustainability, amongst different divisions.

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

“However at Amazon, we do not shrink back from huge challenges,” Hurst wrote, within the letter kicking off the 2021 sustainability report. “We do not have all of the solutions at this time, however we imagine in the necessity to act now.”

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