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Energy Voices: Insights on the future of fuel and power

Are renewables stormproof? Hurricane Sandy tests solar, wind.

Most renewable energy installations in New Jersey and New York appear to have weathered hurricane Sandy relatively well. Can they stand up to storms with even stronger winds?

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Ara Agopian, president of SolarInsure, a renewable energy specialty insurance broker, reported a low claim history from property loss in the wake of Sandy.

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Sandy’s impact on ConEdison Solutions, the renewable energy subsidiary of Consolidated Edison, amounted to “truly, relatively minor damage to a handful of panels,” according to Christine Nevin, director of media relations for ConEdison Solutions.

Of the 22 solar farms run by Public Service Electric and Gas Co. in New Jersey (not including customer owned systems), four sustained various degrees of damage, according to Fran Sullivan, spokesman for the publicly owned utility.

While much of the damage was minor, Mr. Sullivan said a 3.2 megawatt solar farm in Linden, N.J., was severely damaged when it was submerged under seven feet of water, despite being built above the 100-year flood-plain mark.

However, even the flooded plant in Linden had little direct effect on customers, Sullivan said.

“If you lose one of these [solar] plants, it’s something we’re going to be able to backfill with standard generation,” he said.  

Wind turbines, which are shut down in high winds, appear to have endured Sandy with equal or greater success. Wind farms in Cuba sustained wind speeds of up to 110 m.p.h. and sustained no major damage, according to the World Wind Energy Association, based in Bonn, Germany.

Five turbines just outside Atlantic City, N.J., were put into “hurricane mode” during Sandy and were generating 1.5 megawatts of electricity soon after the storm subsided, according to OnEarth Magazine, a blog and quarterly environmental magazine published by the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York.

Built to last

Experts attribute the low percentage of reported damage to the developing technology and advanced engineering that goes into designing and building wind and solar systems.

Photovoltaic cells are covered by durable glass to prevent it from hail or foreign objects blown about by the wind, experts said. Still, not even the toughest glass can withstand larger chunks of hail or tree limbs, and manufacturers must walk a fine line between using glass strong enough to be protective but not so thick it weighs heavily on a roof or significantly reduces solar absorption.

When wind speeds exceed 50 m.p.h., turbines can be locked and the blades angled out of the wind so as to minimize damage, said Kevin Kaminski, a senior vice president, at Energi, a holding company based in Peabody, Mass., that provides risk management and insurance brokerage services to energy firms. Lightning rods are installed to divert the energy of a strike, Mr. Kaminski said.

Geothermal is virtually stormproof, energy experts said. Systems that draw on heat from the earth’s core to generate power are predominantly underground and protected from much of nature’s wrath, excepting earthquakes and deep flooding.

If the occurrence of extreme weather events and the demand for renewables increase over the coming years, these systems are likely to be further tested, especially by storms with even higher winds than Sandy.

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