With millions still left without electricity a week after Hurricane Sandy hit the Northeastern United States, many are left wondering how this aftermath could have been alleviated in some way. Solar is a relatively safe form of energy, a feature that may be overlooked in a state of crisis such as superstorm Sandy that disabled New York City’s power grid this week.
Unlike fossil fuel plants, solar plants require no combustible fuels to generate electricity and there is no danger that they will leak radiation like a nuclear power plant. Unlike the nuclear and fossil fuel infrastructure, the Northeast’s wind and solar farms evoked little public anxiety this week when Hurricane Sandy hit. Safety officials kept a careful eye on the nuclear power plants and three were shut down in New Jersey and New York.
Solar does not need additional energy inputs to produce electricity or cool a reactor, said John Kourtoff, president and CEO of Toronto-based Trillium Power Wind. There is no need for natural gas, oil or coal to be excavated, transported and applied to the system. Additionally, they mimic nature in design, so they tend to be more resilient and withstand natural disasters better, he said. “Renewables at their core are simple bio-mimicry based on nature. This simple and closed aspect makes them successful when storms and natural disasters happen, whether hurricanes, earthquakes, or tsunamis,” Kourtoff said. Wind and solar farms mimic a natural cell-like structure, so they are less likely than conventional power plants to succumb to a cascading failure.
Solar farms keep running even if there is damage to one panel since the system runs on a cellular-like model. The simplicity offers practical benefits. “In terms of renewable energy, it can certainly help the grid come back quickly from weather situations like Hurricane Sandy,” said Carol Murphy, executive director, Alliance for Clean Energy New York. “It can take nuclear plants a week or more to come back online. Wind and solar, like other generators, do shut down during extreme weather conditions, but they can be back up and produce power quickly.”
Based on early assessments, renewable energy facilities seemed to fare well during Hurricane Sandy. ISO New England said it received no reports of any damage to wind or solar facilities from the storm. Iberdrola Renewables, which owns wind farms in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Pennsylvania, reported few problems. Long Island suffered some of the most severe destruction, wiping out service to most of the Long Island Power Authority’s 1.1 million customers. But the island’s 32-MW Long Island Solar Farm appears to have come through fairly well.
Residentially speaking, solar manufacturers design their systems to withstand 120 mile-per-hour winds or higher. Most damage in high-wind weather is actually caused by the impact of flying objects. Damage can very well occur when large debris hit solar panels at high wind speeds, as with any other part of the roof or home. That’s where manufacturer’s warranties and homeowner’s insurance come into play.
A common misconception about most solar electric systems is that the system makes you energy independent. Most solar electrical systems are grid-tied and connected to the power lines, meaning if there is a power outage, the home unfortunately will still lose power. The home’s solar power feeding out to those lines would cause live wires if downed and potentially electrocute workers repairing those lines if not shut down. The only way for true solar energy independence would be a battery back-up system installed in addition to the solar PV system. These systems are rarely installed because they are expensive; customers don’t receive the same high financial incentives when they are off-grid.
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