Wind and solar are relatively safe forms of energy, a feature that we tend to overlook until a disaster hits like the "superstorm" that disabled New York City's power grid this week.
Unlike fossil fuel plants, they require no combustible fuels to generate electricity. And there is no danger that they will leak radiation as did the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant following last year’s tsunami in Japan.
Hence, the Northeast’s wind and solar farms evoked little public anxiety this week when Hurricane Sandy hit – unlike the nuclear and fossil fuel infrastructure. Safety officials kept a careful eye on the nuclear power plants and three were shut down in New Jersey and New York. And the smell of natural gas in any flooded areas drew quick attention from those who understood the danger.
These anxieties speak to a larger difference between renewables and conventional generation. Specifically, wind and solar operate under simpler systems that are prone to fewer problems, say renewable energy advocates.
Simple Design, Simple Operations
First of all, wind and solar do not need additional energy inputs to produce electricity or cool a reactor, said John Kourtoff, president and CEO of Toronto-based Trillium Power Wind. There is no need for natural gas, oil or coal to be excavated, transported and applied to the system. Instead, they produce electricity by taking advantage of a form of energy that is already available – wind and sun.
Second, they mimic nature in design, so they tend to be more resilient and withstand natural disasters better, he said.
“Renewables at their core are simple bio-mimicry based on nature. This simple and closed aspect makes them successful when storms and natural disasters happen, whether hurricanes, earthquakes, or tsunamis,” Kourtoff said.
He pointed out that last year’s tsunami in Japan devastated a nuclear plant, but wind turbines near the shore suffered no harm.
Wind and solar farms mimic a natural cell-like structure, so they are less likely than conventional power plants to succumb to a cascading failure, according to Kourtoff.
You lose a blade on a wind tower and you don’t lose the whole wind farm — just like you don’t kill a flower if a petal comes off. But for more complex energy systems, like fossil fuel and nuclear plants, failure in one part can bring down the entire production facility in a cascade, he said.
“You can put a spike through a solar panel yet the rest of the solar farm runs because it runs on a cellular-like model. If one cell is not operational, the others continue to operate,” he said.
He calls nuclear and fossil fuel plants industrial age technologies, and recent wind and solar, “Renewables 2.0,” designs that have grown simpler, with fewer moving parts and more efficient functioning.
Kourtoff also likened wind and solar design – at least in philosophy – to the products created by Steve Jobs, which emphasized simplicity, elegance and human appeal.
“Why do people like Apple products? They like them because of the simplicity of design. People see beauty in simplicity, in nature. You never hear anyone say, ‘Look at that beautiful nuclear plant.’ But if you see wind turbines moving gracefully in the water, they look beautiful,” Kourtoff said.
The simplicity also offers practical benefits.
“In terms of renewable energy, it can certainly help the grid come back quickly from weather situations like Hurricane Sandy,” said Carol Murphy, executive director, Alliance for Clean Energy New York. “It can take nuclear plants a week or more to come back online. Wind and solar, like other generators, do shut down during extreme weather conditions, but they can be back up and produce power quickly.”
How Did Renewables Weather the Storm?
Based on early assessments, renewable energy facilities seemed to fare well during Hurricane Sandy. ISO New England said it received no reports of any damage to wind or solar facilities from the storm.
Iberdrola Renewables, which owns wind farms in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Pennsylvania, reported few problems.
“We monitored the situation through the night and shut down sites as a precaution to protect equipment from extreme winds. Inspections today have revealed minimal damage so far. We are very satisfied with the response of our people and the performance of the sites through an exceptional event,” said Jan Johnson, Iberdrola Renewables’ communications director.
Long Island suffered some of the most severe destruction, wiping out service to most of the Long Island Power Authority’s 1.1 million customers. But the island’s 32-MW Long Island Solar Farm appears to have come through fairly well.
Nothing “catastrophic” happened at the facility, according to Matt Hartwig, spokesman for BP Alternative Energy, which operates the solar farm. “They are beginning their assessment, which initially shows damage to the fence around the facility as well as some module damage, the extent of which is not yet known.”
New York, Connecticut and other hard hit areas happen to be in various stages of devising long-term energy plans. We’ll soon see if Hurricane Sandy – and lessons learned about renewable energy performance in storms – will add a new dimension to policy decisions about the future role of wind and solar.
Lead image: Hurricane via Shutterstock