Careful planning can minimize impact of bad weather, natural disasters
by Katherine Loving, Contributing Columnist
Severe weather and natural disasters often result in extended power outages, leaving residents and businesses without electricity. In areas where these events occur regularly, the thought of installing solar panels may seem like an uncertain solution.
But while concerns about a rooftop system withstanding severe weather conditions are legitimate, careful planning, maintenance and product choice can mitigate some of the risks.
The first step to creating resilient solar is to install a system that can operate without being connected to the grid. Rooftop systems shut off automatically during an outage to avoid returning power to the grid and potentially harming lineworkers.
Installing a battery storage system provides emergency power by isolating the home system from the electric grid. A properly sized battery should provide enough electricity to power critical household loads like refrigerators or medical equipment. A solar inverter and a switch can operate the system without support from the grid and provide limited power when the sun is shining.
Regular maintenance of the rooftop system is important for disaster-prone areas. The system should be installed in a location easily accessible for maintenance and repairs. This is especially important in hurricane-prone areas. Preseason inspection and maintenance of components, structural connections and generating capacity of the cells can help ensure the system is prepared before disaster strikes.
System hardening, or techniques to reduce vulnerabilities, is another step you can take to create resilient solar. An axis tracker can help protect panels across many types of weather issues. This is a computer-assisted device that can move the panel to a more vertical position to minimize damage from wind, snow and hail.
Hail – International standards for panels require they withstand hail at sizes up to 1 inch in diameter and speeds up to 50 mph. In places with dramatic summer storms and large hail, this may not be enough. Opting for panels made of fully tempered glass, which are thicker and more impact-resistant, may be a solution, but they are heavier and may require a stronger frame.
Wind damage –Many panel systems are rated for 140-mph winds. Additional hardening can be achieved by bolting the frame to the roof to improve the structural connection. If use of an axis tracker is not an option, manually moving the tilts of the panels ahead of the storm is a possibility. For hurricanes, marine-grade steel will provide protection against salt water. Also, consider installing the electrical components in a water-tight cabinet.
Wildfires – Rooftop solar is capable of withstanding high heat because the panels need to work on a roof on a hot summer’s day. However, smoke and ash decrease solar generation and can cause damage from prolonged exposure. Inspection after a fire is recommended to identify system damage.
Snow and ice – In areas with heavy snowfall and ice, consider stronger support structures. Heavy snow piles can put stress on the system. Energy production ceases if the panels are covered, but should leave the panels undamaged as the snow and ice eventually melt.
Consider stronger support structures for panels in areas with heavy snow and ice.
Katherine Loving writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.