US SOLAR INSTITUTE,
US Solar Institute
November 15, 2012
Ft. Lauderdale, FL As the President and Founder of US Solar Institute, I've been a long-standing committee member of the Broward County GO Solar initiative – a Department of Energy funded program to lower the cost of solar installations.
ISO New England – an independent, non-profit organization that oversees the successful operation of New England's "32,000-megawatt bulk electric power generation and transmission system." After Hurricane Sandy, it received zero reports of any damage to solar facilities as a result of this freak super storm.
Over the months, I’ve watched in exasperation as engineers with zero real world solar PV experience received generous taxpayer funding to create solar PV systems that accomplished the very opposite of what the GO Solar initiative was designed to do – i.e. lower installation costs for end users.
But first a little background.
You see, racking systems constitute a very important aspect of solar installations. They hold the panels in place. So in a market like Florida that receives some of the worst hurricane winds in the country, the GO Solar organizers decided to invest resources in making these racking systems even more secure.
Although their intentions were good, these government officials lacked any solar or construction expertise. Consequently, they diverted limited resources towards a problem that at best, was poorly defined, and worst, was non-existent. In fact, their efforts actually made the PV systems less secure since the non-solar engineers they hired used galvanized angle iron in addition to the standard aluminum that accompanies most racking systems.
Again, the intentions were good, but there’s a reason why almost none of the 20 gigawatts of solar installations across the globe use this combination of materials. These 2 metals quickly corrode when in contact with one another – a fact that every entry level solar PV student learns during training.
Not only are the racks less stable, but they’re also much more expensive – aluminum is substantially cheaper than galvanized angle iron. Investing money to make something worse is simply bad policy.
What GO Solar Didn’t Understand about “Going Solar”
There obviously wasn’t any malice involved. The organizers and engineers thought they were implementing a solution that, on the surface, made a lot of sense. Florida does have high hurricane winds, and we often receive questions from local homeowners and businesses about what might happen to their solar installations in the upcoming hurricane season.
But had the GO Solar team solicited input from experienced engineers and installers within the field, they would have realized that:
1. Properly Installed Racking Is Stable
When properly installed, most racking systems are incredibly stable. More than that, they actually increase the structural integrity of buildings, making them more resilient against storms than if no installation had ever taken place.
One need only look at New Jersey, one of the largest solar markets in the country. Despite a super storm that wiped out entire neighborhoods, the state’s solar installations (including entire solar farms) remained intact, and in many cases, operational.
This last point is incredibly important. Many of those in Hurricane Sandy’s path were still able to generate free energy from the sun even when their neighbors had no electricity at all – for days.
Even if a few panels do fly off (which is very rare), the system still operates due to the modular nature of solar energy.
Contrast this with power stations and nuclear plants. One broken widget and the entire system shuts down. The lucky ones are those who lose power. The unlucky ones receive radiation poisoning.
2. Properly Installed Racking Isn’t Dangerous
Let’s talk worse case scenario. Suppose that some panels do fly off (which is very rare). There are no explosions. No meltdowns.
When Hurricane Sandy came barreling up the coast, New Jersey shut down a number of its nuclear plants just to be safe. Its solar farms, however, were not shut down since:
If we’re really serious about hurricane dangers, why not focus on gas station canopies that cover huge reservoirs of highly combustible fuel?
Fact vs. Fiction – Florida’s Solar Racking Has a Long History of Success
What I described above isn’t simply opinion. It’s fact.
I personally know of systems that were installed 30 years ago, well before Florida expanded its building codes in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in 1993. Those systems are still fully operational.
But don’t take my word for it. Just ask ISO New England – an independent, non-profit organization that oversees the successful operation of New England’s “32,000-megawatt bulk electric power generation and transmission system.” After Hurricane Sandy, it received zero reports of any damage to solar facilities as a result of this freak super storm.
And keep in mind that the racking systems used in New Jersey are built to significantly lower standards and cost than those used in Florida.
Don’t get me wrong. Florida can’t go around using just any racking system. We have an entire hurricane season compared to what New Jersey experiences once in a blue moon. So I’m all for devoting resources to making our racking as resilient as possible. And yes, safety should always be a concern.
But if we’re going to use public tax dollars to improve solar safety, cost, and durability, we should educate policy makers so they can make better informed decisions about the “experts” they bring on board. Our leaders either need to learn the trade or turn these decisions over to those who already understand the industry. It’s cheaper and safer for everyone.
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