After Sandy: Will Backup Solar Boom?


Can you bet on a new market for floodwater preparedness and survivability?

When Superstorm Sandy put huge swaths of the grid out of commission on the East Coast, for some regions it was the third major power failure in a year, after Hurricane Irene and last summer’s derecho storm. Small businesses with mission-critical power needs — for refrigeration or data centers, for instance — face financial disaster if power goes down for more than a few hours.

Hurricane shelters in Florida with PV Panels
Florida has equipped 101 schools as hurricane shelters, each with a solar-powered battery backup system.

They should take a look at larger businesses and institutions that long ago turned to “islanding” microgrids: self-contained power generation entities. For decades it was common for universities to run their own power plants and self-contained grids. This saved money — typically they used cogeneration to heat their facilities, too — but it also assured that laboratories and computer centers would have stable power regardless of disasters affecting nearby utility companies. In the Bronx, Co-op City had heat and light throughout the storm thanks to its own self-contained grid.

Cogenerating microgrids have historically been powered by coal, natural gas or diesel fuel, but there’s no reason a moderate-sized system couldn’t be powered by a solar array or wind turbine with a battery bank, by a fuel cell or even by a small hydro installation. For coast locations, the deciding issue may be the impossibility of trucking in fuel across flooded streets and washed-out bridges.

Under the Solar Sandy project, Consolidated Solar sent 10 trailers, each equipped with a Sunny Island inverter, to New Jersey, Rockaway, N.Y., and, shown here, Staten Island. Photo: Max Joel Photo for Solar One & SolarCity

“Outside the United States we see a lot of stand-alone grids supporting mining facilities,” said Greg Smith, a sales manager at SMA, which manufactures the popular Sunny Island microgrid inverter. “They often have megawatt-scale generators burning diesel fuel, and a huge solar field saves a lot of fuel — that saves both fuel costs and transport costs. We’ve also sold systems to meat-packing plants.”

At OutBack Power, Senior Marketing Manager Mark Cerasuolo believes that the market for backup power systems will ramp up steadily, driven in part by the insurance industry. “We’ve installed Radian inverters for backup systems for big businesses up and down the West Coast,” he said. When a business depends on a mission-critical process or data center, the underwriters want to see an uninterruptible power supply (formally, a UPS needs to switch power sources within 400 milliseconds). “Hurricanes Irene and Sandy and the tsunami in Japan were big disasters, but everyday disasters have the potential to put companies out of business. So there’s a market for commercial and institutional backup, and the pros do it first.” Often, a business will decide to add a battery system to an existing grid-tied solar array.

“We put in a 2-megawatt uninterruptible power system for a textile company that can’t afford to have its machines slow down even momentarily,” said Sequoya Cross, co-owner and vice president of sales at Backwoods Solar, based in Northern California and Idaho. “We’ve been selling AC-coupling kits since the ‘80s, and flow-battery solutions for the military, but recently 70 percent of our incoming calls have been from the East Coast.”

In the wake of Sandy, it appears that a market is emerging for commercial-scale islanding systems. Developers and installers will sell them; manufacturers of racking systems, inverters, charge controllers, battery systems, fuel cells and electrical supplies will redesign their products for improved floodwater survivability.

Bayonne, NJ Schools with PV
Bayonne, N.J., designated two of its solar-equipped schools to shelter up to 375 storm refugees. The Midtown Community School, foreground, was one of them. Photo: Bayonne Schools

A likely target is neighborhood schools, which can serve as emergency refuge centers. The Florida Solar Energy Center has commissioned 10-kilowatt (kW) islanding solar arrays at 101 schools around the state, outfitted to provide hurricane shelters for at-risk populations like nursing home patients. The systems are all built around OutBack’s Flexware 500 inverter/chargers. According to Cerasuolo, the solar-backed battery banks are robust enough to provide light, refrigeration and air conditioning for several days.

In Bayonne, N.J., schools functioned just that way. When Sandy took out the grid during the evening of Oct. 29, Midtown Community School kept the lights on thanks to a battery bank operating through a pair of SMA Sunny Central 125U inverters. The school has had a diesel generator for years to support its role as an emergency shelter, but in 2004 the district contracted with Advanced Solar Products to install a 232-kW solar array and a battery bank. The goal was to keep the emergency center open even if fuel deliveries were interrupted. As it played out, the school maintained power for more than a week, sheltering 50 to 75 people, on less than 400 gallons of diesel. The Bayonne school district owns 2 megawatts of solar arrays, built in 2006 at the high school and eight elementary schools. One of the other elementary schools, Nicholas Oreskes, sheltered up to 300 people.

In addition to the inverter companies and installers, the chief beneficiary of a boom in backup power will be manufacturers of large deep-cycle batteries, including Rolls/Surrette, Trojan, Crown and U.S. Battery. Meanwhile, SolarCity and Tesla have begun leasing home battery systems.

Columbia University sent its OutBack-equipped Solar Journey trailer to power a meal-service site at a church in Rockaway, N.Y. Photo: SolarJourney

Finally, the trailerized mobile solar power system may finally break out of the military/construction niche. Chris Mejia, who operates Consolidated Solar in East Petersburg, Pa., had a dozen 20-foot trailers in his fleet when Sandy struck — 10 10-kW systems and two 20-kW systems, all leased from the manufacturer, DC Solar Solutions of Concord, Calif. When he couldn’t get through to government agencies, Mejia reached out to Solar One, a nonprofit green-energy education center in midtown Manhattan. With financial backing from SolarCity, the 11th Hour Project (a clean energy foundation in Palo Alto, Calif.) and HSBC Bank, the Solar Sandy project was launched and had the first five trailers on site within four days. Eventually, 10 trailers provided local power in the Rockaways, Staten Island and New Jersey. Another trailer, Columbia University’s 6.5-kW Solar Journey rig, was diverted from its designed task — powering an electric vehicle across the United States — to St. Gertrude Church in Rockaway.

“We would certainly like to expand the fleet,” said Mejia. “The trailers can be daisy-chained to create a microgrid. It’s a bootstrap solution to get a community back on its feet.”

Seth Masia is an editor of SOLAR TODAY and director of communications at the American Solar Energy Society.

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