“Superstorm Sandy” struck the northeastern coast with a vengeance at the end of October, leaving extensive damage and destruction in its wake. As residents struggled to regain a sense of normalcy and rebuild their lives after the storm, restoration of power was a top priority. As stories of heartbreak, hope, and heroism took shape in the storm’s aftermath, solar energy emerged as a bright spot. Solar energy was able to offer some relief from blackouts and a positive outlook for a future threatened by climate change.
Overcoming Grid Outages And Fuel Shortages
Many residents were left without power for weeks after the storm, with outages stemming mostly from damage to transmission lines. The grid was down, and fuel for generators was scarce. Rooftop solar systems designed to operate independent of the grid, mobile solar equipment, and makeshift solar charging stations were able to respond quickly, powering important locations within the hardest-hit areas.
Midtown Community School in Bayonne, NJ, had uninterrupted power and served as a community evacuation center thanks to a rooftop PV array and a technologically advanced inverter designed to operate in conjunction with a generator. When power from the grid was lost, the solar power system was programmed to route power away from the grid and into the generator. Solar power kept the generator going when the diesel fuel required to operate it could not be delivered.
According to Richard Schaeffer, responsible for the school’s facility management, solar saved the day for those displaced by the storm. “Without our solar system on the roof of the school, we would have needed even more fuel, which would have been difficult to find because it was needed for all the repair trucks operating around the state.” The generator was able to continue running on solar power, allowing the school to provide safe, comfortable shelter.
Photo Left: Greenpeace’s mobile solar lighting unit.
Photo Right: A mobile solar charger provided by SolarOne.
Solar companies donated mobile solar equipment to function as emergency power systems during the recovery and as back up systems after power is restored to the grid. Volunteers built makeshift solar charging stations, and organizations like Greenpeace and SolarOne deployed mobile solar equipment to meet energy needs and help drive the recovery effort. The quiet solar equipment doesn’t need refueling or proper ventilation. In neighborhood gathering places, the equipment can be used to charge cell phones and run critical equipment.
Several nuclear power plants had to be ramped down during the storm for safety reasons and to prevent damage to the grid. Taking no chances after lessons learned from the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, the Excelon nuclear power plant in New Jersey declared an alert. Rising water threatened to damage pumps that circulate water used to cool components of the plant.
Solar installations do not present high-level dangers in the face of a storm. A traditional grid-tied solar system automatically shuts down when power lines go down, for the safety of utility workers and to protect the grid from damage. With battery backup, a solar system can continue running independent of the grid, rather then simply shutting down. Although there are safety precautions to follow should a solar system become submerged due to flooding, there is no threat of toxic contamination from a damaged system.
While solar panels may not be completely stormproof, they have proven to be fairly resilient. Solar companies including Sungevity, SunPower and SolarCity reported limited damage to solar installations in the region. The panels weathered the storm successfully due to durable materials, rooftop installations located above the risk of flood damage, and industry standards and building codes that require panels to withstand a certain amount of wind force.
Grid Stabilization The destruction of Superstorm Sandy serves as a reminder of Mother Nature’s strength and the potential for more severe weather due to climate change. It also highlights grid challenges and renewable energy’s role in response to those challenges.
Solar systems create an alternative means of generating and storing electricity to relieve pressure on the grid during times of high demand or failure. As more renewables come on line, the grid will require improved technologies to handle the intermittent nature of wind and solar. Sandy’s impact on the grid demonstrated the fragility of our centralized electricity system, while solar proved to be an effective alternative to grid-generated power, with even greater potential from advanced inverter and battery storage technology.
In the aftermath of storms like Sandy, we are challenged not only to continue the battle to mitigate climate change, but to adapt to it. Hopefully we won’t have to wait until the next storm to decide if solar has proven its worth.
To learn more about how you can become involved in the growth of solar energy as an alternative power source, check out Everblue’s Solar Training Programs.
By Amy Malloy