Solar Sh*tty: Tesla’s Latest Controversy Unearths New Fire Claims, Lawsuits & Safety Worries

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It was just about a week and a half ago that we reported on Walmart suing Tesla for defective solar panels that it alleges caused fires at seven of its locations. A few days later, Amazon joined the fray. The retail giant also claimed that its Tesla solar panels spontaneously ignited and said Tesla solar energy systems went up in flames at an Amazon warehouse in Redlands, California last June. Now, Amazon has stated that it has no further plans to buy solar energy systems from Tesla.

This has predictably led to a deluge of homeowners filing lawsuits and questioning the safety of their installation, according to Bloomberg

It has also highlighted stories like David Burek’s, who noticed “charred wood and a burning smell in his attic, near his young sons’ bedroom” last year. After he went up on his roof, he noticed a “melted connector wire” from the solar panels installed on his house. Firefighters would later tell him that flames had burned through his shingles, the roof and a support beam. Burek got lucky when rain put the fire out for him.

Burek’s charred panel being removed from his house

Then, a month later, a fire broke out at the home of Ken Tomasello, in Maryland. The fire sent a section of the ceiling crashing onto a bed and caused so much damage that Tomasello and his wife had to live in a hotel for more than a year. 

Both homes had SolarCity panels installed on their roofs. 

And while this represents a small cross section of Solar City’s 400,000 customers, it adds concern about the safety of Tesla’s systems, as now publicly called out by both Walmart and Amazon. It also shows that the same issues with Solar City’s corporate systems may cross over into their residential installations. 

Now, in addition to the internal cover up (“Project Titan”) that we reported on here, it’s being reported that Tesla is reaching out to its customers and telling them that they need to perform preventative maintenance on their solar panels. 

Burek, for instance, said he heard from Tesla in October 2018, five months after his panels had been removed. 

Burek said:

 “When I called Tesla back, they said our system had been flagged for bad connectors. I told them there was no system to maintain because they’d already caused a fire on my roof.”

Other examples of fire complaints haven’t exactly been hard to find, either.

Tesla claims that these fires are rare, stating: 

“In the past year, less than 1% of 1% of sites have experienced any type of thermal event necessitating any form of emergency response, and there have been no injuries. While we strive for zero risks across all of our products, this rate of risk presents less of a household danger than a home washer or dryer.”

But this hasn’t stopped Tesla’s solar business from being in steep decline. And now, with seasoned skeptics like Bethany McLean taking notice, things look like they could be getting worse before they get better for Tesla. 

In Tesla’s case, the fires are “sparking” both finger-pointing and lawsuits. As a result of the Burek and Tomasello fires, two homeowners insurers, Citation Insurance Co. and Allstate Corp., accused Tesla of negligence and breach of contract. Tomasello’s insurer is trying to recoup at least $300,000 in fire-related losses and Burek’s insurer is seeking to recover the $12,000 it had to pay out to the couple. 

Sarah Wilder, director of curriculum development and instruction at Solar Energy International, a nonprofit focusing on technical training said: “A shortage of under-qualified workers can lead to a decline in system quality. Faulty components, shoddy workmanship or wiring, or a combination, can cause fires. So can poor maintenance.”

Joe Osha, an equity analyst at JMP Securities, a San Francisco investment-banking firm said: “There’s a lot of emphasis by solar companies on getting that installation but insufficient emphasis on making sure that the system is rigorously operated and maintained. These are not install-and-forget assets.”

Tomasello concluded: “When I heard about the Walmart fires, I wasn’t surprised at all. I’m sure there are other homes that have had experiences similar to ours.”

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