Walmart Says Tesla Solar Panels Set Fires Atop Stores

A lawsuit complains of “years of gross negligence” in installing and maintaining equipment at hundreds of locations.

ImageA Tesla solar panel.
A Tesla solar panel.CreditCreditRozette Rago for The New York Times

A series of rooftop blazes at Walmart stores in recent years left the retail giant with a pressing question: What was causing all the fires?

In a lawsuit filed in New York State Supreme Court on Tuesday, Walmart proposed an explanation. “The answer was obvious and startling,” the complaint said. “The stores all had Tesla solar panels installed by Tesla on their roofs.”

Walmart is suing Tesla for breach of contract, contending that at least seven rooftop fires at the retailer’s stores between 2012 and 2018 were a result of problems with solar panels installed by the company.

The complaint asserted that Tesla engaged in “widespread, systemic negligence” and “failed to abide by prudent industry practices in installing, operating and maintaining its solar systems.” It said the panels were installed on the roofs of more than 200 of the 5,000 Walmart locations in the United States.

Representatives of Walmart and Tesla did not respond to requests for comment.

The panels were installed by Tesla’s solar business, which was absorbed when the electric-car maker acquired SolarCity in 2016. The Walmart complaint asserted that the company “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.”

Walmart is seeking damages from Tesla, as well as the removal of all the company’s solar power systems from its stores.

Since Tesla acquired SolarCity, it has aimed to offer one-stop shopping for solar technology, batteries and electric cars. Tesla ended its relationship with Home Depot, where sales teams offered solar panels to residential customers, and began offering all of its products at its own retail stores or online.

While its solar products have primarily been for residential use, about one-third of the energy-generating potential of Tesla’s panels in California comes from nonresidential locations, according to the California Solar and Storage Association.

The company has tried to revamp its solar business under Sanjay Shah, the senior vice president of Tesla Energy, who previously held executive positions at Dell and Amazon.

But Tesla’s share of the solar market has continued to decline, and last year it lost its status as the leading residential solar company to Sunrun, a rival based in San Francisco. Revenue from Tesla’s energy and storage business fell from $784 million in the first six months of 2018 to $693 million in the same period this year, a 12 percent decline, according to its federal filings.

Walmart has also struck agreements with other solar-energy companies as part of its broader goal of having 50 percent of its operations powered by renewable energy by 2025.

Properly installed solar panels very rarely result in fires, according to Dan Whitten, a spokesman for the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group.

“While there is small risk associated with any electrical equipment,” Mr. Whitten said, “our industry has performed more than two million installations in the U.S. and has heard of very few cases where fires have occurred.”

The first rooftop fire occurred at a Walmart store in Long Beach, Calif., in 2012, the company’s complaint said, and the blazes continued through at least the fall of 2018.

A fire in March 2018 at a Walmart store in Beavercreek, Ohio, released “a tremendous plume of black smoke” as firefighters arrived and customers evacuated, the complaint said. The store was closed for eight days.

“Ominously, the fire had occurred near gas lines on the store’s roof,” the lawsuit said. “By stroke of luck, the gas lines remained intact, and catastrophic injuries and damages were averted.”

In May 2018, a fire at a Walmart in Denton, Md., damaged the store’s roof. Eight days later, a firefighter was treated for smoke inhalation after responding to a blaze at a store in Indio, Calif.

After those fires, Walmart decided it had had enough. “To state the obvious,” the complaint said, “properly designed, installed, inspected and maintained solar systems do not spontaneously combust.”

The retailer demanded that Tesla disconnect the solar panels installed on its stores, the complaint said, and Tesla agreed that “de-energization” would be prudent.

But last November, the roof of a Walmart in Yuba City, Calif., ignited. When the blaze was discovered, wires on the roof were still sparking, the complaint said, even though the solar panels had been disconnected for five months.

Alain Delaquérière contributed research.

Ivan Penn is a Los Angeles-based reporter covering alternative energy. Before coming to The Times in 2018 he covered utility and energy issues at The Tampa Bay Times and The Los Angeles Times. @ivanlpenn

A version of this article appears in print on , Section B, Page 4 of the New York edition with the headline: Walmart Sues Tesla Over Fires. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe