Solar companies seek ways to build an oasis of electricity

Nov 21 2012, 03:36 IST
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SummaryWhen Hurricane Sandy wiped out the power in areas like coastal Long Island and the Jersey Shore, what should have been beacons of hope — hundreds of solar panels glinting from residential rooftops — became symbols of frustration.

When Hurricane Sandy wiped out the power in areas like coastal Long Island and the Jersey Shore, what should have been beacons of hope — hundreds of solar panels glinting from residential rooftops — became symbols of frustration.

Despite the popular perception that installing solar panels takes a home “off the grid”, most of those systems are actually part of it, sending excess power to the utility grid during the day and pulling electricity back to run the house at night. So when the storm took down power lines and substations across the Northeast, safety systems cut the power in solar homes just like everywhere else.

“Here’s a $70,000 system sitting idle,” said Ed Antonio, who lives in the Rockaways in Queens and has watched his 42 panels as well as those on several other houses in the area go unused since the power went out October 29. “That’s a lot of power sitting. Just sitting.”

Yet there are ways to tap solar energy when the grid goes down, whether by adding batteries to a home system or using the kinds of independent solar generators that have been cropping up in areas hard-hit by the storm. In the Rockaways, where nearly 14,000 customers still had no power as of Monday morning, volunteers set up a makeshift solar charging station between a car roof and a shopping cart. A multipanel, battery-tied system is helping fuel a relief centre’s operations.

In the storm’s wake, solar companies have been donating equipment across New York and other stricken areas to function as emergency power systems now and backups in the longer term. It is important, executives say, to create smaller, more decentralised ways of generating and storing electricity to help ease strain on the grid in times of high demand or failure.

“The grid won’t evolve into something more distributed and fault-tolerant overnight — it’s still dependent upon a centralised system,” said Ben Tarbell, vice-president for products at SolarCity, a leading installer that has donated generators after Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy and is developing a battery backup system for its customers. “But the components are starting to come together.”

Generally, home systems like Antonio’s are engineered to feed electricity from the roof array through an inverter and into the home’s electrical panel, sending the excess to the broader electric grid. But during a failure, the inverter automatically shuts down the system to guarantee that no electricity is flowing into equipment

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