Author(s): Birgitte Messerschmidt. Published on May 2, 2023.

More Power, More Problems?

A new European Union rule requiring solar panels on rooftops will transform buildings across Europe—and present a host of new safety challenges 


After Russia attacked Ukraine last year, the European Union sped up its plan to become energy independent by boosting the production of renewable energy through its REPowerEU plan. Draft legislation to be voted on later this year requires member states to ensure that suitable solar energy installations are included on all new public and commercial buildings with a total floor area larger than 250 square meters (2,691 square feet) by the end of 2026, on all existing public and commercial buildings with a total floor area larger than 250 square meters by the end of 2027, and on all new residential buildings by the end of 2029. It’s an ambitious plan that will transform the European building stock in unprecedented ways.
While adding photovoltaic (PV) panels to rooftops will doubtless bring significant benefits from a climate and energy perspective, it will also introduce fire safety challenges. To help ensure that the EU’s green transition is also a safe one, the Fire Protection Research Foundation and NFPA arranged a workshop on PV panel installation on commercial buildings in March in Brussels, Belgium. The goal was to review the latest research and experiences related to these installations to identify best practices for safety and installation, considerations for new policy recommendations and regulations, and knowledge gaps. Participants included a member of the European Parliament and a representative from the European Commission, as well as building owners, insurance company representatives, and researchers from the EU and U.S.
It didn’t surprise me that the European Parliament and European Commission representatives displayed little concern for the fire safety implications of rooftop PV panels. Their focus was on energy production, and they argued that using electricity for heating and cooking is less of a fire risk than gas or oil. What they and others forget is that the reason we live safely with combustibles such as gas and oil is that continuous improvement of building codes and standards have made it safe to have such fuels available in our buildings. Changing to renewable energies does not represent a higher risk, but it does represent a different risk than what we have designed our buildings for.
The experience of a global company with PV panels installed on most of its buildings illustrated the challenges with this technology as well as potential solutions. Research from the University of Edinburgh/Technical University of Denmark and FM Global showed how installing PV panels on rooftops changes fire dynamics and can lead to significant flame spread on a roof that otherwise would have been considered safe if no panels were present. Insurance representatives described how they are trying to mitigate this risk for their clients, and a member of the Amsterdam fire department outlined fire service concerns with fighting fires on buildings with PV panels. 

Discussions emphasized that adding PV panels to rooftops should not be done without clear guidance on how it can be done without compromising fire safety. It was also clear that more research is needed to better understand the interactions between PV panels and roof components. This should then lead to a standardized test method that includes both PV panels as well as the entire roof buildup to show how all the different components interact during a fire. 

A key takeaway for me was that fire safety is once again playing catch-up to other societal interests, and fire safety advocates are seen as trying to impede progress. This is not our intention—on the contrary. We want to ensure that efforts such as these can happen in a way that is safe for all.

The report from the workshop will be available in May at

Birgitte Messerschmidt is director of the Applied Research Group at NFPA. Illustration: Michael Hoeweler