US: Walmart accuses Tesla of gross negligence in fire lawsuit

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From pv magazine USA

Yesterday afternoon, Walmart filed suit in the United States against Tesla over fires which it alleges originated at PV installations designed, installed, owned and maintained by Tesla/SolarCity at its stores in three states.

Walmart counts seven fires in total, but only four that are under contract with Tesla and not SolarCity before the acquisition. These four started from March through November 2018, and include an array that was supposed to be de-energized and which still caught fire in November.

The retail giant is asking for Tesla to remove all 240 of the systems it installed at Walmart stores, but also other damages including paying for its consultants. These represent more than half the sites where Walmart has installed solar, and would definitely reduce Walmart’s enviable ranking among corporations that have gone solar.

“Failure to live up to industry standards”

But perhaps the most interesting part of this case so far is the very serious allegations that WalMart is making around installation and operations and maintenance practices at Tesla. The 114-page summons, posted online by Electrek, is rather damning.

To be clear, Walmart is not claiming that solar isn’t safe; but rather that Tesla did a profoundly bad job of installing and maintaining these systems:

“To state the obvious, properly designed, installed, inspected, and maintained solar systems do not spontaneously combust, and the occurrence of multiple fires involving Tesla’s solar systems is but one unmistakable sign of negligence by Tesla… The number of defects, however, is overwhelming and plainly indicative of systemic, widespread failures by Tesla to meet the standard of care, as set forth in the governing contracts, as to the solar systems installed at Walmart’s stores.”

Walmart says that inspections of the systems revealed “widespread, systemic negligence and had failed to abide by prudent industry practices in installing, operating, and maintaining its solar systems”, and that this greatly increased the risk of fires.

Among the pieces of evidence for this, Walmart states that it found a large number of microcracks, hotspots and backsheet damage, which suggest the installation of damaged solar panels.

“For example, solar panels across the inspected sites contained numerous hotspots—or localized areas of increased and excessive temperature-as well as yellowed encapsulant and micro-cracks, which are precursors to hotspots. Many of these defects were either visible to the naked eye or readily identifiable with the proper use of standard equipment, indicating either that Tesla had not been inspecting the sites or that its inspection protocols were woefully deficient.”

Another allegation is that Tesla’s inspection teams did not have the necessary skills to do their job: “Walmart quickly discovered that Tesla routinely deployed individuals to inspect the solar systems who lacked basic solar training and knowledge. Tesla’s personnel did not know, for example, how to conduct inspections or how to use simple tools, such as temperature-measuring “guns” used to detect hotspots, and a Tesla employee failed to identify multiple hotspots that Walmart’s consultants observed.”

But Walmart also stresses that many of the problems originated with a “rushed, negligent approach” to the installation of the systems, and here it blames SolarCity’s business strategy.

“On information and belief, Tesla’s predecessor-in-interest-SolarCity-had adopted an ill-considered business model that required it to install solar panel systems haphazardly and as quickly as possible in order to turn a profit, and the contractors and subcontractors who performed the original installation work had not been properly hired, trained, and supervised.”

Tesla had not responded to pv magazine’s request for a response to these allegations by press time.

A bad look for solar

There is a bit of irony that these allegations of shoddy practices to maximize profit are coming from a company which has become the world’s largest retailer by offering cheap goods to the masses while paying low wages to its workers and driving down the prices it pays to suppliers and contractors.

Regardless, this is far from the first criticism that has been made of SolarCity’s pursuit of growth at all costs, which allowed it to capture a full third of the U.S. residential market at its peak, but also may have required a bailout in the form of the acquisition by Tesla. However, most of the previous allegations seen by pv magazine centered around shady sales practices, not the safety of its installations.

It remains to be seen how much these headlines will tar the overall solar industry. But the larger question is whether or not the solar industry is effectively policing itself against bad actors who are cutting corners, and whether or not these problems are confined to one company.

For more exploration into issues of quality and safety in solar projects, come to our Quality Roundtable at Solar Power International in Salt Lake City on September 25th.