Solar Panels no Help with Grid Down

Monday, November 5, 2012 @ 01:11 PM gHale

Some of the millions of power customers affected by Hurricane Sandy’s wrath may be glancing around at a handful of homes with solar panels on their rooftops, thinking their neighbors might be up and running with no problem.

In fact, that may not be the case.

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At issue is most residential solar panels connect to the power grid, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, and when the grid goes down, so do they. “They don’t stay on even when the sun shines but the power grid is out,” said Danny Kennedy, co-founder of Oakland, CA-based Sungevity, which has a few hundred homeowners as customers in states hit by Sandy. “That’s a good reminder to all of us that we need to modernize the grid.”

One reason the grid-connected solar systems shut down automatically in outages is when the power goes off, if home solar installations send electricity onto the lines, it could electrocute workers repairing them.

In the U.S., it’s also rare for residential solar customers to have batteries in their home to store the power coming off their roofs in case of a broader outage. In countries such as Germany, more homes have batteries or electric vehicles connected to their panels, Kennedy said.

The good news: Home solar arrays withstood Sandy’s furious winds for the most part. Sungevity said the company’s installations should hold up to sustained winds of up to 100 miles per hour. Sandy’s gusts hit 90 mph at their peak.

Sunrun, another residential solar company, has about 6,500 customers in the Northeast, and hadn’t received any reports of damage by Wednesday afternoon, according to spokeswoman Susan Wise. The San Francisco company sent an email to customers instructing them not to go near solar installations, even if the power is off, and to call the company for maintenance or repairs.

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