One of the first things to fail during a natural disaster is the power grid. Depending on the location and the disaster, this can leave people suffering through bitter heat or freezing cold for days or weeks at a time while linemen work tirelessly to restore the grid. Green energy alternatives like solar panels are often advertised as the best way to prepare for these disasters, but how does solar really stack up when things start going wrong?
Built to Withstand the Elements
Solar panels might look like delicate glass panels, but they’re a lot tougher than they appear. These layered glass panels are designed to be left outside for long periods and are built to withstand the elements. The most common weather conditions these panels are likely to experience are things like rain, hail, and hurricanes, but they can also be susceptible to things like snow and high winds. Panels need to be able to withstand anything Mother Nature can throw at them.
One report collected by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) found that of the 50,000 panels installed between 2009 and 2013, only 0.1% reported any sort of weather-related damage or underperformance. Most panels are designed to withstand hailstones as large as 1 inch (25 mm), though there have been storms in the last few years that, due to climate change, have been dropping hailstones the size of softballs or even larger, including one in May that was more than 6 inches in diameter.
While the average solar panel might not be enough to stand up to a 6-inch hailstone, outside of those strange outliers, solar panels can withstand most of the weather disasters that Mother Nature can come up with.
Solar Alone Isn’t Enough
Hurricanes are some of the most devastating natural disasters, especially for island countries and states that don’t have immediate access to help. When Hurricane Maria swept over Puerto Rico, more than 65% of the country’s power infrastructure was severely damaged.
Solar might sound like the perfect solution when the power grid fails in the wake of a natural disaster, but there is one major caveat: these panels can only generate electricity when the sun is up. Once the sun sets — or if it is obscured by clouds or smoke — the panel’s ability to generate is reduced or eliminated entirely.
Solar alone isn’t enough — you need something to store all that electricity that’s being generated. Battery backups are essential to ensure the power being generated doesn’t go to waste. These will also help keep the lights on when the sun goes down or when the panels are obscured by clouds, rain, or other foul weather conditions.
Having a solar system with backup batteries could potentially save a huge number of lives. In fact, it’s likely the health care sector would collapse entirely without it.
In the wake of Hurricane Irma in 2017, more than 134 elderly individuals in Florida nursing homes died because of the late-September heat while they waited for power to be restored. Hospitals may have backup generators, but they can only provide so much power and may not be sufficient to keep patients alive that are relying on life support.
So much of the modern world relies on electricity that, when the grid fails, it can be fatal even if the disaster isn’t.
Being Ready for Anything
Solar is one of the best options for power in the wake of a disaster. The panels are designed to survive high winds and severe weather, and once the skies clear, they’re right back to generating electricity — but they can’t do it alone. If you’re considering a solar array for your home as part of your disaster preparations, make sure you’ve got a battery backup to store generated electricity and give you something to work with while the sun is down or the storm is looming overhead.
Jane works as an environmental and energy writer. She is also the founder and editor-in-chief of Environment.co.
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