Sandy Inspires Solar Companies to Rework System

Hurricane Sandy caused power outages that also prevented the use of hundreds of solar panels in the greater New York area. Solar companies are now working on decentralizing the system to make solar energy a backup source, reports Diane Cardwell.
November 25, 2012, 5am PST | Jessica Hsu
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"Despite the popular perception that installing solar panels takes a home 'off the grid'," explains Cardwell, "most of those systems are actually part of it, sending excess power to the utility grid during the day and pulling electricity back to run the house at night. So when the storm took down power lines and substations across the Northeast, safety systems cut the power in solar homes just like everywhere else." There are ways to utilize solar energy when the main grid is disconnected, including using independent solar generators or battery banks. In the Rockaways, volunteers set up a temporary solar charging station with batteries to help support a relief center's operations.

"In the storm's wake, solar companies have been donating equipment across New York and other stricken areas to function as emergency power systems now and backups in the longer term," adds Cardwell. "It is important, executive say, to create smaller, more decentralized ways of generating and storing electricity to help ease strain on the grid in times of high demand or failure." Sandy has illuminated the importance of reworking the system so that solar panels can still function during a failure, and now solar companies are looking into using a battery system or electric vehicles as potential backup sources. The drawbacks to these options, says Cardwell, are that battery storage can be expensive and "residents have to figure out where to put the batteries - a particular quandary for those with homes vulnerable to flooding." As for electric vehicles, the required technology is expensive, electrical codes are not in place, and "the average home solar array does not have sufficient strength to consistently charge a car."

Solar companies will be working on developing these backup energy sources, but for now, they have been building makeshift charging stations with the help of volunteers and residents. These stations have allowed people, at the very least, to charge their cellphones and other electronic devices. "But if we're going to have more and more storms that are more severe and power outages are just going to become more frequent," says James Worden, the chief executive of Solectria Renewables, "then there might have to be a technology shift and people will change what they're doing."

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Published on Wednesday, November 21, 2012 in The New York Times
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