Renewables Help Communities Weather Hurricanes

September 22, 2018



People of the Carolinas are picking up the pieces after Hurricane Florence, the wettest tropical cyclone on record. Among the news of dozens of deaths, overflowing pig-manure lagoons, and flooded coal-ash fields, there are some bright spots. Solar-power installations were largely able to escape without harm.

Before the storm hit, Duke Energy’s 40 solar-power sites were “de-energized” and set up horizontally to minimize wind damage. Although it’s too soon say what, if any, damage occurred, the signs are good. Soon after the storm passed, all the installations had begun producing power.

Rooftop solar installations fared well too. Only six out of 800 customers of Yes Solar Solutions reported that there was a problem with their system.

That said, modern renewables form only a fraction of the total electricity produced in the Carolinas. Duke Energy’s Brunswick nuclear plant was shut ahead of the storm and remains offline. The plant is safe but remains inaccessible because of flooding. Natural gas and coal power plants haven’t suffered any problems, but the flooding coal-ash fields are likely to cause environmental problems.

This is not the first time modern renewables have proven their resiliency in the face of storms. “Looking at Harvey in Houston and the storm in Hawaii… we didn’t see any substantial amount of system loss,” Gary Liardon of PetersenDean Roofing & Solar told Greentech Media. “Obviously, if the roof comes off and the house is compromised… there’s no attachment that’s going to survive.”

Texas’s wind farms either operated through Hurricane Harvey or were back up and running soon after (paywall). Similarly, after Hurricane Maria, people have turned to solar with batteries to prepare for the next storm (which we discussed in a recent episode of the Quartz News show). In many places, rooftop-solar installations are built to handle winds of up to 90 miles per hour (145 km/h).

Though non-hydro renewables didn’t make a large fraction of power in the Carolinas, in Texas they provide as much as 19% of electricity, according to the Energy Information Agency. Resiliency in the face of hurricanes will only make the case stronger for wider renewables deployment.

UPDATE: Inside Climate News:

Duke and Strata Solar, two of North Carolina’s largest owners and operators of solar farms, said they found almost no damage in initial inspections. Both companies temporarily shut down some systems in anticipation of flooding, but there were few reports of damage to solar panels.

“I know sometimes we think, ‘Oh it’s the wind, it’s the panels flying around.’ But we haven’t found that to be the case,” said Randy Wheeless, a spokesman for Duke, the largest electric utility in the state. “Our bigger worry usually is flooding.”

Duke shut down three of its 35 solar farms before the storm arrived because of concerns that floodwaters would inundate substations and other electrical equipment. Those three remained offline as of Thursday morning as the company waited for waters to recede.

Wheeless found only one example of wind damage: 12 panels at a 60-megawatt solar farm in Monroe were damaged, which is less than 1 percent of the panels there. The company may find additional damage as it does more inspections, he said.

Strata Solar, which has more than 100 solar farms in the state, said it was aware of wind damage affecting small parts of two different sites.

“It’s fairly isolated damage,” said Brian O’Hara, senior vice president for strategy and government affairs for Strata, which is based in Chapel Hill. “I think a lot of people were looking at Florence as a good test for solar generation’s resilience, and I think we’ve seen a really fantastic outcome.”

While solar farms are abundant in North Carolina, the state has only one utility-scale wind farm, largely because political and regulatory opposition has hindered development. The project, called Amazon Wind Farm US East because it sells all of its electricity to a nearby data centers run by an Amazon subsidiary, is in the northeast corner of the state, far from the brunt of Florence’s damage. It never stopped operating during the storm, said Paul Copleman, a spokesman for the owner, Avangrid Renewables.

How Did Rooftop Solar Fare?

The lack of damage to the state’s solar farms is largely because companies selected locations that are not likely to flood, and they built electricity equipment on platforms to allow for some rising water.

Most panels and racks are designed to withstand wind pressure up to the 140 mph range, according to Burgess. Some systems have panels that move to track the sun, which can make them more vulnerable to wind, but that also allows them to be shifted to positions where wind will do the least damage. At one of Duke’s sites, the company locked the panels into a fixed position in anticipation of the storm, something it can done remotely from a control room.

Rooftop solar companies, such as Renu Energy Solutions in Charlotte, say there was little damage to their customers’ home solar systems. However, installers in some of the hardest-hit areas, such as Cape Fear, did not respond to messages seeking comment and there is a higher likelihood of damage there.

There were many areas where solar arrays were capable of working but their surrounding grid was offline, installers said.

That’s a recurring issue in natural disasters, as few places have the capability to temporarily separate from the grid to run on their own power, said Eliza Hotchkiss, a technical project lead at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Resilience, Nuclear and Coal

Florence’s test of how solar power stands up to extreme weather comes as the Trump administration tries to boost coal-fired and nuclear power plants with the argument that they’re more reliable because they can store months of fuel on site.

Tyler Norris, an employee at solar operator Cypress Creek Renewables, hinted at this broader discussion when he tweeted a photo of one of his company’s solar farms that was “in solid shape” after the storm. And, because the fuel is the sun, he noted that the project has “on-site fuel supply.”

As the hurricane approached, Duke shut down its nuclear plants that were most likely to be affected by the storm. One of them, Brunswick nuclear plant near Wilmington, later declared a low-level emergency after flooding temporarily cut off access to the site. It was able to restart one of its units on Wednesday.

3 Responses to “Renewables Help Communities Weather Hurricanes”

  1. Reblogged this on The Most Revolutionary Act and commented:
    Resiliency in the face of hurricanes will only make the case stronger for wider renewables deployment.

  2. marblenecltr Says:

    How do they get through hail storms or being covered in ice or snow?

    • greenman3610 Says:

      solar panels actually generate power even when covered with snow, as light propagates some distance in snow – and in most cases melts and slides off the typically smooth, tilted panels in short order.

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