Solar Panels Avoid Storm Power Outages

Words by: Kayla Parker

Photos by: Kayla Parker

Tallahassee did not get the worst of Hurricane Irma, recording only 50,000 power outages which were restored fairly quickly. But some residents avoided the worst thanks to their energy systems.

According to solar energy officials, some homes and businesses with solar energy systems avoid power outages caused by strong storms.

A solar energy system has panels that absorb sunlight and transform the energy into electricity for the building it is attached to.

Henry Harrison, sales manager at Independent Green Technologies in Tallahassee, a locally owned solar and wind energy company, said that solar panels are connected to the city’s electricity grids. Power outages occur when electricity grids shut down. When the grids fail, the law requires solar panels to also shut down.

However, Harrison said solar panels can continue to power themselves when the electricity grid shuts down if they have one important device connected to them.

“You have to have a AC-coupled battery backing system. In the event of a power outage, you would have a sub-panel that would operate the critical things you would want to operate. Such as some lights or an oil palm or maybe a refrigerator,” Harrison said.

Solar panels with the battery backing system are still connected to the city’s electricity grid, but the panels switch off the electricity grid and power themselves with a battery in the event of a power outage.

Stephanie Andrews, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) alumna and a clinical pharmacist at Amber Pharmacy in Richardson, Texas has solar panels on her home with the battery backing technology.

“We don’t lose power. We have the new solar city battery pack so that is always there,” Andrews said. “When it rains, the panels still work at 60 percent.”

In the event of a power outage, the battery powers the building, but as Andrews said, some batteries my not be strong enough to power the entire building. Her battery powers 60 percent of her home when the power goes out. However, customers can buy a stronger battery for an extra fee.

According to Harrison, extra fees are what scares customers away from the battery backing system.

“Many people request it,” Harrison said. “But sometimes due to budgetary figures it may not be something people can go forward with.”

The AC-coupled battery backing system can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $16,000, according to Renewable Energy World, a network for renewable energy information.

Sharon Piepmeier, president of Simpler Solar Systems, an alternative energy and solar company in Tallahassee, said that her company sells an AC-coupled battery system for roughly $13,000.

“The battery system is an intergraded system. So you have the solar panels, the converters, then you have the voltage regulators, then you have the batteries themselves. So it’s a whole system,” Piepmeier said.

Officials say the high cost of solar panels can be attributed to impatient consumers. Buying solar is an investment, and it may take time for customers to see any decrease or change in their electricity bill. Some consumers do not want to wait for a return on their investment.

This is in addition to the current small market for solar energy. If the market grows and interest in solar grows, the price for solar will decrease.

As for now, many solar customers have their panels only connected to the city’s utility power grid to avoid the high cost of the backing system.

Because of this, some homes and businesses in Tallahassee with solar panels still lose electricity when strong storms enter town because their panels lose power when the power grids lose power.

Aside from providing power during storms, panels are expected to physically withstand tree limbs, hail storms, and 120 or more mile per hour winds, but the panels may not physically withstand natural disasters.

Companies like Simpler Solar Systems sell and install solar systems in Tallahassee, Florida. Residents can also estimate how much money they will save if they switch to solar energy through Google’s Solar Savings Estimator calculator powered by Project Sunroof.

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