Solar Power Plants Stand Up Well To Hurricane Florence

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In the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, Duke Energy and Strata Solar — two of the largest solar power operators in North Carolina — report only minimal damage to their solar farms as a result of the storm. Conversely, half of Duke Energy’s 3.4 million customers were without power at some point during the storm. The implications about how solar power could help communities create more resilient energy grids to meet the challenge of more frequent and more powerful storms are intuitively obvious to all but the most obdurate clean energy opponent.

Solar power North Carolina
Credit: Duke Energy

North Carolina, held hostage by rabid Republican climate deniers for years, currently has hundreds of small solar farms.

“What we’ve done this week just underscored what we’ve known for decades — generating assets are never the main vulnerability,” Chris Burgess, project director for the Rocky Mountain Institute tells Inside Climate News. The most breakable parts are “the wires themselves, the overhead lines,” he said. That has certainly been the case in Puerto Rico, where power is still not fully restored after last year’s hurricane.

“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 Duke spokesperson. “Our bigger worry usually is flooding.” Flooding doesn’t impact the solar panels directly but it can affect onsite substations. Wheeless said his company only found wind damage at one installation, a 60 MW solar farm in Monroe, North Carolina, where 12 panels were damaged — less than 1% of the total. Not all of Duke’s solar facilities have been physically inspected for damage yet.

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Solar Strata says its more than 100 solar installations in the state incurred only minor damage from the storm. “It’s fairly isolated damage,” said Brian O’Hara, senior vice president for strategy and government affairs for the company. “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.”

The lack of damage to the solar installations in North Carolina is due primarily to the foresight on the companies who built them, who took into account the possibility of flooding when selecting sites — something Republicans seem genetically incapable of doing — and putting critical electrical equipment on platforms where flooding was anticipated.

Most of the panels and rack systems are designed to withstand winds up to 140 mph range, according to RMI’s Burgess. Some systems have sun tracker systems that can be positioned remotely to minimize exposure to high winds. Communications in some parts of North Carolina are still out at this time, but Renu Energy Solutions in Charlotte tells Inside Climate News few of its customers have reported any damage from the storm.

Failure Is The Best Teacher

Even failures can help make for more reliable renewable energy in the future. When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico one year ago on Sept. 20, it had sustained winds of 155 mph, well above Florence’s wind speeds after landfall, and some solar panel racks came loose.

RMI’s Chris Burgess and his team studied the effects of that storm to learn how solar power designs and installations could be improve to make the systems more secure. “From what we investigated on the ground in the Caribbean,” he says, “solar can be designed and can be installed to be extremely resilient to the most extreme storms.” Of course, for people who operate in a world where only propaganda supplied by the Koch Brothers is considered valid — like the majority of the North Carolina legislature — such learning from experience is impossible.

Mark Z. Jacobson And Microgrids

Just because a solar power installation or rooftop installation survives high winds doesn’t mean the electricity it produces can be put to good use after a storm. If it is connected directly to the grid and the grid is down, onsite management tools will shut the system down to protect utility workers from electrical shock while they are repairing broken wires.

Some microgrids and home storage batteries are able to operate in “island” mode, which means they can still deliver electricity to local customers while being physically disconnected from the larger utility grid. As more and more renewable energy sources are constructed to allow such islanding, the impact from major storms like Florence on utility customers will be lessened.

An example of such a system is being tested this month at the University of South Florida, where a 100 kilowatt rooftop solar system is coupled to a 350 kilowatt Tesla storage battery. If power to the campus is cut, the battery is able to power some critical items like elevators, lights, and EV chargers for several days. Catherine Stempien, president of Duke Energy of Florida, tells WMNF News that her company expects to install more such local microgrids in Florida in coming years.

CleanTechnica reached out to Mark Z. Jacobson, the highly respected Stanford professor of civil engineering who is also a senior fellow at the Precourt Institute for Energy and the Woods Institute for the Environment. He told us in an email, “Microgrids are valuable, not only for when the larger grid goes down due to a severe weather event or other interruption, but also for providing regular power to remote communities, islands, and military bases. It is essential that we expand the use of and improve current microgrid technologies to meet these existing and growing needs.”

Richard Sedano, who heads the Regulatory Assistance Project, a nonprofit that advises utility regulators, agrees. He thinks severe storms like Hurricane Florence will encourage decentralization of electrical grids so that if one part stops working, other parts can remain operational. He believes such decentralization will happen more often as the costs of rooftop solar and battery storage continue to decline. A decentralized grid architecture would be less vulnerable to mass outages when a power line breaks or a substation floods, he says.

Tweaking The Chief Twitterer

Tyler Norris, who works for solar operator Cypress Creek Renewables, couldn’t resist the chance to tweak our alleged president and the members of his administration who insist only coal and nuclear plants are capable of providing power in emergencies.

Norris took to Twitter to say that his company’s solar farms survived the storm with no interruption in service and that they have an unlimited “on-site fuel supply” — namely the sun. Such humor is lost on Republicans, of course, who believe nothing that isn’t on Faux News first.

Hope For The Future?

Roy Cooper, the Democratic governor of North Carolina, said this week, “When you have two 500-year floods within two years of each other, it’s pretty clear it’s not a 500-year flood.” His state was whacked by Hurricane Maria last year after it was done pummeling Puerto Rico.

Writing in The Guardian this week, Megan Mayhew Bergman, who grew up near the Atlantic coast of North Carolina, wrote, “There is a potential radical shift at hand for all of us who grew up on the coast, a reckoning with the new and sometimes terrifying normal of climate change — where there is no normal.

“The most radical shift may be occurring right now among moderates and conservatives who have long dodged the science of a warming planet and rising seas. They will be forced to consider its realities: sunny day flooding (Wilmington had 84 days of high tide flooding in 2016), more extreme weather events, a rapidly changing coastline, and the loss of culture and landscape. Those who have stayed doggedly rooted to the past, or maintained a business-first mentality, may have their eyes opened uncomfortably to the future.”

Severe weather events care little for dogma or political expediency. Not only are renewables and microgrids the best way to keep the power on for more people during grid outages — they are also the best way to keep more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, where it will further accelerate the warming of the environment.

Mother Nature is trying desperately to tell us something. Why do so many refuse to listen to her warnings? Do they think money will somehow insulate them from the coming onslaught our environment has planned for us? Shakespeare may have said it best. “Lord, what fools these mortals be.”

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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