After Hurricane Sandy hit Mid-Atlantic states last October, it seemed like a good time to talk about solar energy. Bloggers posted their opinions about solar becoming necessary as cities rebuilt. Consumers wondered whether alternative energy sources might help them endure the next power outage. Solar companies announced new products that could help.
More than seven months later, New York and New Jersey have seen some solar projects go up, but industry experts cannot really pinpoint which, if any, of these were built as a result of issues raised by the superstorm. Still, some are optimistic that there will be more solar soon.
Lyle K. Rawlings, vice president for New Jersey for the Mid-Atlantic Solar Energy Industries Association (MSEIA), says New Jersey has always been a top state for solar. According to the Washington, D.C.-based Solar Energy Industries Association, New Jersey ranks third behind California and Arizona for cumulative solar electric capacity. In the first quarter of 2013, New Jersey ranked second to California in solar power installed, with 76 MW compared to California's 408 MW. (Hawaii was third with 44 MW.)
One thing that might increase post-Sandy, Rawlings says, is demand for inverters that enable the solar systems to keep working during an outage.
‘Nearly all of the solar systems that have been installed don't have the capability to work when power is shut down,’ he explains. ‘Inverters have to meet the UL 1741 standard that requires PV systems to disconnect from the grid and shut down when there is a loss of power.’
Rawlings, who is also president and CEO of installer Advanced Solar Products Inc. in Flemington, N.J., says installers have been fielding calls lately from owners of existing solar PV systems, asking how they can switch to an inverter that would enable the system to provide emergency power. Rawlings points to one customer, a Bayonne, N.J., school that served as an emergency shelter during the Sandy emergency. The facility had solar power with an SMA America inverter that kept the power on for more than a week after Sandy.
Rocklin, Calif.-based SMA America recently released the Sunny Boy TL-US series inverters that provide limited daytime opportunity power of up to 1,500 watts in the event of a grid outage. Users would be able to charge their phones and plug in a fan, for example, during a power outage. It operates without batteries and only in sunlight.
Just prior to this year's Atlantic hurricane season, which began on June 1, the City of New York released a report, Hurricane Sandy After Action. The report evaluated the city's performance in responding to the storm and made recommendations for how the city could prepare for the next emergency. Solar was largely missing from the report, except for Recommendation 13: Consider alternative power options for traffic and street lights to keep the roadway network functioning to the maximum possible extent during power outages.
One grassroots organization has its own plans for bringing more solar to the city. Santa Monica, Calif.-based Global Green USA announced Solar for Sandy, a program that asks PV manufacturers to donate panels to be installed on community facilities in New York and New Jersey. The organization announced it will receive panels from Suntech Power to install a solar system with backup power for the Rockaway Beach Surf Club, a community center in Queens that served as a nerve center for relief efforts after Sandy. Global Green also announced it is partnering with the retailer IKEA to build a grid-tied, backup solar energy system in Red Hook, Brooklyn, this fall.
‘Our goal is to really make the solar grid-tied backup system the model so every neighborhood in low-lying areas has a community center with this system,’ says Matt Petersen, CEO of Global Green. ‘We're going to do six of these systems in different neighborhoods in New York and New Jersey.’
This interest in solar plus backup is one positive result of the storm, says MSEIA's Rawlings.
‘There is a new perception that solar can do more than produce clean kilowatt-hours – it can produce emergency power,’ he says. ‘There is a need for policies and for legislation to make sure we build solar in places it is most needed, such as supermarkets, hospitals, water treatment plants, gas stations, banks, where they should have emergency power.’
Nora Caley is a Denver-based freelance writer.