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Phoenix Rising: Renewable Energy Good News Comes to Light After Hurricane Sandy

As Sandy ravaged parts of North America three weeks ago, hundreds of power generation assets were threatened. According to SNL Energy, there were 731 operating power plants of 10 MW or larger in the path of the storm. Among these facilities were 20 nuclear plants, 80 coal-fired plants, 237 gas-fired plants and 394 plants of various other fuel types, including hydropower, solar, biomass and wind power plants.

Even though Sandy left many customers in the dark, most of the power outages were caused by distribution and transmission line damage rather than damage to actual generating assets.  That said, at least three nuclear power plants were ramped down to “guard against grid overload” said SNL, which also reported that one nuclear plant, Exelon's Oyster Creek in New Jersey, declared an emergency event during the storm, due to flooding of the plant's circulating water system.  The emergency event was the third most severe on the NRC event matrix.

As survivors sift through the wreckage and those hardest hit work to restore some semblance of the life they had before the storm, we are all reminded of the power of mother nature and its ability to destroy what mankind has spent decades building. The widespread damage that resulted from the storm has left many people calling for more use of “safer” forms of energy and meaningful action to combat climate change.

Renewable energy answers both calls.  Lessening our dependence on CO2 spouting fossil fuel-fired power plants will serve to reduce the alarming amount of pollution that has been warming our planet since the Industrial Revolution.  In addition, renewable energy assets are strong, safe and resistant to damage.

Here we offer a few tidbits of encouraging news for renewable energy.  With many people still suffering from the damages the storm caused, here are a six ideas to get excited about.

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Caribbean and Southeastern Coastal Wind Turbines Fare Well During Sandy

Just about a week after Hurricane Sandy, Northern Power Systems announced that 74 of its wind turbines, including three in the Caribbean, had been in the path of Hurricane Sandy and were undamaged by the high winds. Following Irene, a category 3 hurricane that hit in 2011, Sandy was the second powerful Atlantic storm to hit Northern Power turbines within a year and all turbines that were impacted performed safely as expected.

“The losses experienced from Hurricane Sandy are a tragic reminder of how powerful nature can be,” said Troy Patton, Northern Power Systems President and CEO. “Many of our turbines, from the Caribbean to the eastern seaboard of the U.S., were directly in the path of Hurricane Sandy, but none were damaged by the high winds. At Northern Power Systems, we have the experience and commitment to continue to make products that are safe and reliable.”

As a testament to the design of Northern Power’s turbines, as soon as each turbine detected Sandy’s hurricane force winds, it automatically entered safe mode. Once conditions returned to normal, each turbine started generating electricity again, said the company.

(Left: Over Yonder Cay in the Bahamas is a private island with wind, PV, battery for 2 days and diesel as a back-up for the renewable system, so it had no problem islanding during Sandy. Courtesy Northern Power Systems)

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Solar System Backs Up Generator, Keeps Power On in Face of Sandy’s Fury

When Sandy slammed into Bayonne, NJ, a one-of-a-kind solar electric system developed by Advanced Solar Products of Flemington, NJ helped keep the power on at Midtown Community School, where 50 to 75 residents of this historic Hudson Riverfront city spent the night sleeping on cots in the warm, dry and well-lit community room.

Power from the grid was lost to all of Bayonne, including Midtown Community School (left), which also serves as a community emergency evacuation center, at about 9:00 on the evening of October 29. The lights at the school stayed on, however, because of its backup system. The large commercial-scale solar system, at the time part of the largest solar power project on the east coast, was designed and built with assistance from Advanced Solar Products (ASP) and installed in 2004.

(Image, 272 kW array at Midtown, photo courtesy PowerLight Corp.)

The 272-kW PV array was designed to operate in conjunction with an uninterruptible power supply. The one at the school is a diesel generator according to Lyle Rawlings who has served as president of ASP since 1991. The generator is large enough to meet the electricity needs of the school during a power failure, but uses huge quantities of diesel fuel, which must be delivered by truck if supplies can be located at all during and after an emergency such as Sandy. 

“Without our solar system on the roof of the school, we would have needed even more fuel, which would have been difficult to find because it was needed for all the repair trucks operating around the state,” said Rawlings.

In order to provide this capability, the school's solar power system was specially modified with new controls, sensors and innovative software to enable it to automatically detect a power outage.  When it does, it immediately shifts its output from circuitry powering the school’s ordinary heating, cooling and lighting systems to the building's emergency circuits. “Storms such as Sandy will become more frequent if we do not stem greenhouse gas induced climate change,” says Rawlings.  “Widespread adoption of solar power is an economically beneficial way to reduce greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels.”

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Sandy Didn’t Hurt Distributed Wind Turbines

As the deadline to extend the wind energy tax looms, the Distributed Wind Energy Association (DWEA) and other wind energy advocates are underscoring the importance wind power as a sustainable source of energy for small business and home owners.

Up and down the coast, DWEA members have shared accounts of distributed wind systems braving the storm in all impacted states.  Stories include little to no damage to members' wind turbines from North Carolina to New York, and beyond. 

Mike Bergey, President of Bergey Windpower Co., had five 10 kW turbines installed in Nags Head, North Carolina, including three turbines on Jennette's Pier (left), which was directly impacted by Sandy.  Bergey was pleased to report that all five of his turbines survived the storm unscathed.

According to Bob Olivio in Villas, New Jersey, "I am on the Delaware Bay approximately four miles from Cape May. I was here during the entire storm with winds as high as 71 mph.  I never powered my Skystream off, and am pleased to report that it's still generating electricity today."

Based on wind speed data from the National Hurricane Center, turbines that are engineered to withstand 120 mph winds would have easily weathered Sandy¹s wrath but many business and home owners don't consider wind energy as an alternative energy source until it's too late. 

"We hope that citizens and business owners will consider the power of wind energy as a tested and valuable source of energy to generate electricity.  When all else fails, wind energy has the ability to weather the storm and keep the lights on," said Jennifer Jenkins, executive director, DWEA.

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Sandy Raises Interest in Geothermal Heating and Cooling

 

According to an article in the NY Times, Hurricane Sandy is helping to show more New York City building owners the value of geothermal systems for heating and cooling. The article points to the many unearthed half-empty fuel tanks that popped up in flooded areas across regions hardest hit by the storm.  Geothermal systems, which use the constant 40- or 50-degree temperature of the earth as their fuel – as opposed to oil – are safer and more environmentally friendly than their fossil-fuel counterparts. (See a diagram of how the systems work, above.)

David E. Reardon, manager of geothermal drilling for Long Island-based Miller Environmental Group is quoted in the NY Times article saying that since the storm he has been fielding more calls from building owners interested in geothermal systems than ever before. Since Hurricane Sandy destroyed so many heating and cooling systems, expect to hear more about geothermal in New York in the coming year.  According to the article, more geothermal systems are already installed in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania than anywhere else in the United States.

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Sandy Debris Used for Biomass Power in Connecticut

The Hartford Business Journal points out in an article that ReEnergy Holdings, the New York company that operates the Sterling biomass facility (below) in Sterling, Connecticut has been using Hurricane Sandy debris to power its plant. The facility, which up until the Connecticut power outages of 2011 had used discarded tires as its main fuel source, diversified in order to accept the more than 100,000 cubic yards of debris that accumulated after that ice storm.

Since the facility has now been fully converted to accept storm debris along with pallets, clean wood and forest residues, it is collecting debris from Hurricane Sandy.

If the predictions are true and we should expect more storms of greater intensity going forward then clean-up will remain an issue.  Facilities like this one will become increasingly important in figuring out how to manage all of the wreckage that major storms like Sandy will create.

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Cuban Wind Farms Suffered No Damage From Sandy

Hurricane Sandy destroyed thousands of houses in the Eastern part of Cuba, mainly around Santiago de Cuba, the country's second largest city. The affected area, the province of Holguín, also happens to be home to two wind farms: Gibara I, a 5.1-MW power plant consisting of six 850-kW turbines that were installed in 2008; and Gibara II: a 4.5-MW plant that consists of six 750-kW machines that were installed in 2010 (see image). 

Both wind farms were fully hit by hurricane Sandy, which brought wind speeds of up to 110 miles per hour. After initial inspections, the Cuban government announced at a meeting with the World Wind Energy Association (WWEA) in Havana that neither one of the two wind farms suffered any major damage from by the hurricane and that they still provide electricity for the local grid. 

Stefan Gsänger, WWEA Secretary General said that the hurricane was a good reminder of the vulnerability of our civilization to natural disasters.  He said that since wind farms survived the 2010 tsunami in Japan and the 2012 hurricane in Cuba, “we should learn our lessons from this and accelerate as fast as possible the shift towards decentralized renewable energy such as wind power, all over the world." 

Lead image: Phoenix Rising via Shutterstock

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