Living in south Florida, hurricanes and tropical storms are a frequent topic of conversation every year, and this week, with Harvey’s devastation fresh in our memories and Hurricane Irma swirling in the not too distant future, Floridians are rightfully worried. Just yesterday, Florida Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for all of Florida, grocery stores are already running out of food and water, and some residents have already started to evacuate. But for those staying put, planning to weather the storm, another question has risen – If we lose power, will solar panels still work?
Here’s the short answer – If you are talking about the standard, grid-connected solar panel systems, no, they will not generate power. If the grid goes down, your solar panels are “down” as well, not providing any electricity to you. (If you’re not sure what kind you have, they are probably connected to the grid. The majority of residential systems are, often referred to as “grid tied”.) The biggest reason for this shutdown is safety – As soon as possible after the grid goes down in a hurricane or tropical storm, power companies get to work trying to bring it back on, that means hundreds, or even thousands, of workers and emergency response teams are performing hands on work on power lines in affected areas. If residential solar panel systems are connected to the grid and generating power, this poses an electric shock risk to any worker. Incorrectly connected generators pose the same risk and come with warnings not to connect to the grid.
Here’s the longer answer – Some solar panel systems will work when the power goes down. Essentially, if it’s not connected to the grid, you’re in business. If the whole system is designed to be off-grid, complete with battery back up, a power outage for everyone else won’t affect you at all, but again, these systems are relatively rare. It’s much more likely, and feasible, to have a solar system created with a disconnect switch and separate circuit that can be used in case of a power outage. The disconnect switch would ensure you’re not feeding any stray power onto the grid, and the panels would act like a solar powered generator for you as long as the sun is shining. If you wanted to have power during the storm or at night, you’ll need some form of battery backup connected to your panels, like the much talked about Tesla Powerwall system.
Even if you don’t have a full solar panel system on your roof, solar can play a part in your hurricane preparation and emergency plan! You can easily set up mini “solar powered systems” on your own to charge things like cell phones, computers, or even fans using kits or pre-assembled products (like a USB charger with a small solar panel already built in). You can purchase these online or at many home improvement stores. Solar powered lights are also very easy to find in stores and online and not that expensive. Many solar lights can be charged ahead of time and are a good alternative or supplement to candles (fire risk!) and battery powered lights and chargers.
Hurricane season is a stressful time, costly repairs to homes and businesses being yet another worry. Many are concerned that a hurricane would rip the solar panels right off of their roofs, leading to costly repairs, but there is some good news for those who do have solar: Even if your panels are not able to generate any power during a power outage, they will likely help protect your roof and home from damage. Think of these panels as armor for your roof, built to the extra-tough Florida building code, and designed to withstand winds of hurricane force. Not only are the individual panels incredibly tough, their mounting systems generally serve as a reinforcement of your roof, criss-crossing the existing structure.
So, in the short term, as people are preparing for Hurricane Irma, yes, solar can be very helpful during hurricane season, whether it’s protecting your roof, powering a large battery operated a system, charging your cell phone, or providing needed light during a power outage. Long term, solar can play a much larger role when it comes to hurricanes for two big reasons. 1: Increased emissions from dirty energy is fueling warmer ocean and air temperatures, which is helping to exacerbate extreme weather events such as hurricanes; increased solar adoption will help to mitigate that. 2: As we are currently seeing in the aftermath of Harvey, massive storms lead to flooded refineries and power plants, spreading toxic pollution into our water, air, and soil. A solar spill, on the other hand, well, that’s just a sunny day.
Here’s hoping for many more sunny, solar filled days, and a safe-as-possible hurricane season here in the Southeast.