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Solar Energy's Role in Crisis Situations

by Emily Hois on 06/12/2013 in Alternative Energy, Renewable Energy, Solar Energy, Solar Panels, Solar Power

In the midst of disaster, electric power is often the first to go. Within minutes, the loss of this critical service can result in widespread panic when houses and businesses become abruptly dark, gasoline can’t be pumped to fuel emergency vehicles and communication with loved ones is limited.

Diesel- and gasoline-powered generators have traditionally been used to provide emergency power during crisis situations, but improper use can lead to other disasters—such as fires and fuel explosions.

“Many people use generators to restore power temporarily, which can be noisy and use lots of fuel running at full power,” said Mark Cerasuolo, senior marketing manager at OutBack Power Technologies. And that fuel can be scarce in times of crisis.

Enter: solar energy.

After Hurricane Andrew ravished Southern Florida in 1992, photovoltaics (PV) were used to help restore power in relief shelters and medical clinics of the hardest-hit areas. These PV systems were in place for more than two months, until conventional electricity could be restored.

“PV and generators can work together with smart chargers to balance energy loads following disaster,” Cerasuolo said in an online discussion.

Fast-forward 20 years when Hurricane Sandy struck the Atlantic Coast and left millions of people without power. Some residents turned to their neighbors with residential solar systems, thinking these could provide electricity. But solar PV systems that are tied to the grid can only provide power if they have off-grid capabilities, such as battery storage.

photo courtesy of Green Peace

“Solar is definitely viable to prevent blackouts, but you must ensure it leverages a backup power source if tied to the utility,” Cerasuolo said.

But solar power was still beneficial to the victims of Hurricane Sandy. The nonprofit clean energy group Solar One deployed solar generators to help residents charge cell phones, laptops and to power lights and small refrigerators. Sometimes it takes a disaster for more people to realize the importance of decentralized energy generation, and the need for storage capabilities if the electrical grid fails.     

“The grid won’t evolve into something more distributed and fault-tolerant overnight — it’s still dependent upon a centralized system,” Ben Tarbell, vice president of products at SolarCity, told the New York Times. “But the components are starting to come together.”

While the demand for battery backup for residential solar PV is high after a crisis, it’s not yet prevalent on a daily basis. Philippe Bouchard, Business Development Manager of EOS Energy Storage, said that despite all the potential uses for energy storage, the market has yet to take off.

“Many happy solar users exist without backup, but frequent 'hundred-year' storms are causing some to reconsider," Cerasuolo said. Severe weather, combined with price hikes from utility companies, are encouraging more homeowners to reduce their dependence on the grid and explore energy storage options. NRG Energy has done its market research and plans to offer PV systems with battery backup in the form of shade structures in the coming months. These bundling options can help make storage more affordable for residents, as battery back-up is still too expensive for many U.S. residents.  

“Bundling solar with energy storage might only increase the price by 15 to 25 percent up front,” Cerasuolo said. “It can get trickier to add-on storage to solar, so education is key for people in early stages.” But storage prices are falling slowly thanks to new technologies—and battery storage is already financially viable in Germany.

Despite the uncertainties of price and demand, one thing we do know is the market potential for solar PV energy storage: it’s huge. A report by IMS Research released in April anticipates that the market will grow from less than $200 million in 2012 to $19 billion by 2017. 

As climate change continues and severe weather prevails, first responders can be trained on solar energy’s capabilities and limitations when faced with disaster. 

“The solar community must help educate emergency management that solar is part of emergency preparedness,” said Michael Cooney of CPI Green Energy. During a crisis, solar repair teams can be part of the first responder team so that any damage to the panels during a storm can be repaired quickly, Cooney added.

A combination of off-grid and grid-connected solar options can help create a more resilient power source, while helping to bring solar energy into the mainstream sector.


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