What Is Solar Energy?
Solar energy is the power that comes from the sun. By collecting solar radiation, it can be used in many ways or converted into useful energy.
A popular method is through solar photovoltaic (PV) systems. Also known as solar panels, these devices get installed to convert sunlight into electricity. Federal tax credits, like the solar investment tax credit (ITC), made these systems more affordable. And when you also consider the benefits of solar energy, these factors led to a significant increase in residential and commercial solar panel system installations over the past 20 years.
Since 2006, the solar industry has grown by over 10,000%.1 And the pandemic isn’t slowing things down either. In fact, the country installed 5 gigawatts of solar capacity in the first quarter of 2021 to reach 102.8 gigawatts of total capacity – enough to power over 18 million homes.2
The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) anticipates that the industry will install another 160 gigawatts of capacity over the next five years if growth rate remains the same.
The Benefits of Solar Energy
One of the biggest benefits of solar energy are the cost savings. Electricity rates vary by state, but it’s not uncommon for owners of a solar panel system to pay low utility bills. In fact, the average homeowner can save between $10,000 and $30,000 on utility costs over the lifetime of their system.3
In addition, solar energy is considered a clean, or green, energy. According to the Department of Energy, each kilowatt-hour of solar produced greatly reduces greenhouses gas emissions.4
How Is Solar Energy Harnessed?
Solar energy can be collected passively or actively. If solar energy gets used passively, it means there’s nothing to process that energy. So, the heat from the sun is used directly. When you use machinery or technology, like an inverter, to turn energy into power, it’s considered active solar energy.
Passive Solar Technologies
With passive solar technology, sunlight gets used to heat and move air which ventilates and cools a space.5 A good example of passive solar technology is a greenhouse. Made of glass, greenhouses use the heat from the sun to help with plant growth. This principle is also used in building construction. By strategically using glass, a building can use solar energy to passively heat the structure during the winter. Building features, like roofing angles and overhangs, can also control solar energy in the summer so the building stays cooler during warmer temperatures.
What Is Active Solar Power?
When machines, motors or other technology get used with solar energy, it’s considered an active system. Some common active solar power systems include:
PV systems: It’s not uncommon to see large solar panels installed on the roof of a home or commercial building. In some areas, solar panel farms exist to generate electricity for a company. This technology converts sunlight (photons) directly into electricity (voltage). A large system can generate enough electricity to store in a battery that can power a home or building during an outage. In some cases, the system owner can also sell the generated power back to the electric utility company.
Solar hot water: This widely adopted form of green energy provides hot water to homes and businesses throughout the year. There are different types of solar hot water systems. Generally, these systems include:
- Rooftop-installed solar collector panels
- Insulated piping
- Hot water storage tank
The solar panels trap the sun’s heat and transfer it to heat potable water. The water then flows to a storage tank where it can be used.
Solar air heating and cooling: These systems can save large commercial buildings on the cost of space heating, ventilation and cooling. Most systems have south-facing, wall-mounted panels to maximize collection of solar radiation during the winter. Hot air taken off the top of the panel gets ducted into the building. The same solar heat can also serve as an energy source to cool the building in the summer.
Concentrating solar power (CSP): CSP plants product solar electricity on a large scale. They’re similar to traditional power plants. Using a system of mirrors to concentrate energy from the sun, steam turbines in the plant spin to generate electricity. The thermal energy can be stored and used as needed. There are 11 CSP plants in the U.S.6
Are Solar Panels Dangerous?
Installing solar panels and systems can be risky. Workers in the solar industry face various risks, like:
- Falls from high rooftops
- Electrocution or other electric hazards
- Repetitive stress injuries
- Cuts or sprains
In addition, workers likely face risks from the construction industry – one of the most dangerous industries to work in.7
“When you think about workers in the solar industry who are working with large, heavy panels and tools from very high off the ground, the list of things that can go wrong are endless,” said Stacie Prescott, The Hartford’s chief underwriting officer for energy business insurance. “It can be a dangerous industry and that’s why businesses providing installation of PV panels or other kinds of systems need to make sure they’re protected.”
Because of the risks that businesses and workers face, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires employers to have safety training and protection for their employees. Many solar installation companies have taken OSHA’s requirements a step farther and created their own manuals.
Doing due diligence is important because each worksite is unique and presents different risks. It’s essential for the installer to visit the site, identify safety risks and develop specific plans to address them. Esto puede incluir:
- Equipment to use for safe lifting and handling of solar panels
- Type and size of ladders and scaffolding
- Fall protection for rooftop work
- Personal protective equipment (PPE) for workers
Safety issues are common for solar installations, but proactively putting preventive measures in place can help mitigate on-the-job injuries.
Lifting and Handling Solar Panels
Solar panels are heavy and awkward to lift and carry. Loading and unloading panels from trucks and onto roofs can cause:
- Muscle pulls
- Back injuries
Solar panels also heat up quickly when exposed to sunlight. So, if PPE isn’t worn or panels aren’t handled correctly, they can cause burns.
When it comes to solar panel safety, workers can reduce injury risks by:
- Having two people lift panels with the correct lifting technique
- Using mobile carts or forklifts to transport panels onto and around the work site
- Never climbing ladders while carrying solar panels
- Using properly inspected cranes, hoists or ladder-based winch systems to get panels onto roofs
- Covering uncovered panels with an opaque sheet to prevent heat buildup
- Always wearing gloves when handling panels
Solar installations often involve working on roofs from ladders. So, having the right type of ladder and using it correctly is essential to worker safety.
Select the ladder that best suits the need for access. This can include a stepladder, straight ladder or extension ladder. Be aware that straight or extension ladders should extend a minimum of 3-feet above the rung that the worker will stand upon.
Choose the right ladder material. Aluminum and metal ladders are commonly used, but they’re a hazard near power lines or electrical work. Instead, a fiberglass ladder with non-conductive side rails may be a better option near power sources.
Place the ladder on dry, level ground. Make sure the feet of the ladder are away from walkways and doorways and at least 10 feet from power lines. Secure the ladder to the ground or rooftop for added stability.
Trips and Falls
Trips and falls are the second most common nonfatal injury in the construction industry.8 In fact, there were over 25,000 nonfatal slips, trips and fall injuries in 2019.9 Rooftop solar installations can pose a higher fall risk because there’s less work space as more panels get installed.
To help keep workers safe while installing solar panels and systems:
- Keep work areas dry and clear of obstructions.
- If employees are working six feet or higher, install guardrails around ledges, sunroofs and skylights. It may be a good idea to also use safety nets.
- Provide workers with a body harness anchored to the rooftop to stop a potential fall.
- Cover holes on rooftops, including skylights, as well as ground-level work surfaces.
Solar PV Safety
A solar PV system includes several components that conduct electricity. This includes the PV solar array, the inverter and other essential parts. This presents solar power safety concerns.
When these parts are live with electricity generated by the sun, they can cause serious injuries due to electric shock or arc-flash. Even in low-light conditions, systems can create enough voltage to cause injuries.
Be aware that electricity comes from two sources with PV systems:
- The utility company
- Solar array absorbing the sun’s light
Even if the building’s main breaker is shut off, the PV system still continues to produce power. This requires extra caution among solar workers.
Some of the ways you can keep workers safe include:
- Covering the solar array with an opaque sheet to block the sun’s light.
- Treating wiring coming from a solar PV system with the same caution as a utility power line. That means assume all wires are live.
- Using a meter or circuit test device to ensure circuits are de-energized before working on them.
- Locking out power on systems that can be locked out. Tag all circuits you’re working on at points where that equipment or circuit can be energized.
- Never disconnecting PV module connectors or other associated PV wiring when it’s under load.
Personal Protective Equipment for Solar Workers
Personal protective equipment (PPE) is essential during every solar installation. Employers have to assess workplaces for hazards and make sure they provide workers with the necessary PPE for their safety. Esto puede incluir:
- Hard hats
- Steel-toed shoes with rubber soles
- Eye protection, like glasses or goggles
Make sure employees know how to use the PPE, as well as how to maintain it so it is kept in safe and reliable condition. Workers should know the process to request replacement PPE if it’s necessary.
The Future of Solar Technology
As the world’s energy demands continue to increase, state and federal governments have set targets for new, clean energy sources to reduce carbon pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. One way to achieve this is through solar power. Some experts believe solar will be the most important source of energy for electricity production in a large part of the world by 2030.10
Demand for solar systems is at an all-time high, according to the Departamento de Energía. One of the factors behind this trend is the decreasing cost for solar panel systems. Because of federal and state incentives, the price to install solar systems has declined more than 65% over the last decade.11
Several states also support community solar programs that allow multiple customers to share the cost and benefits of a ground-mounted solar installation. Panels can also be leased instead of purchased, giving homeowners and business owners another option to make installation more affordable.
In addition to batteries, innovation within the solar industry also continues to grow, like:
- Bringing light to developing countries that otherwise rely on kerosene lamps or limited electricity
- Integrating PVs into building materials like roof shingles, facades and windows, helping eliminate the need to install separate panels
- Solar-powered mobile devices
- Solar-powered transportation
Although the cost to install solar PV systems has decreased over the years, some experts believe several factors will affect market penetration and growth.12 To become more widespread:
- Costs will need to continue to drop
- Access to technology and materials will need to increase
- Large-scale solar systems will need to be incorporated into existing electric systems
“It’s hard to predict the future, but what is clear is that the solar industry and technology will likely continue to grow,” Prescott said. “And as more systems get installed and companies find ways to use solar energy, it’s essential to protect the businesses and people that work in this industry to help foster it’s growth.”
Learn more about The Hartford’s renewable energy business insurance solutions.
1 Solar Energy Industries Association, “Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC)”
2 Solar Energy Industries Association, “U.S. Solar Market Insight”
3 EnergySafe, “How Much Do Solar Panels Save?”
4 Department of Energy, “Benefits of Residential Solar Electricity”
5 National Renewable Energy Laboratory, “Passive Solar Technology Basics”
6 Solar Energy Industries Association, “Concentrating Solar Power”
7 Nasional Safety Council, “Most Dangerous Industries”
8,9 National Safety Council, “Industry Profile: Construction”
10 World Economic Forum, “The Future Looks Bright for Solar Energy”
11 Solar Energy Industries Association, “Solar Soft Costs”
12 Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “Study on the Future of Solar Energy”
La información proporcionada en estos materiales brinda información general y de asesoría. It shall not be considered legal advice. The Hartford does not warrant that the implementation of any view or recommendation contained herein will: (i) result in the elimination of any unsafe conditions at your business locations or with respect to your business operations; or (ii) be an appropriate legal or business practice. The Hartford assumes no responsibility for the control or correction of hazards or legal compliance with respect to your business practices, and the views and recommendations contained herein shall not constitute our undertaking, on your behalf or for the benefit of others, to determine or warrant that your business premises, locations or operations are safe or healthful, or are in compliance with any law, rule or regulation. Readers seeking to resolve specific safety, legal or business issues or concerns related to the information provided in these materials should consult their safety consultant, attorney or business advisors. All information and representations contained herein are as of June 2023.