Hurricanes, Solar Panels and Construction Standards

The 2017 hurricane season wrought immense destruction to the electricity grid across the West Indies, most visibly in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Barbuda. Not only did high winds knock down power lines, they tore away solar panels that otherwise could have provided power after the storm clouds parted. In contrast, finds the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), solar facilities in the British Virgin Islands, the Turks & Caicos, and St. Eustatius, survived winds reaching 180 miles per hour.

What was the difference? Installation standards.

RMI sent structural engineering teams to the Caribbean to find out why some solar structures survived nearly unscathed while others disintegrated.

The teams noted similarities between the failed systems, including module clamp failures, undersized racks, undersized and under-torqued bolts, a lack of bolt locking solutions, and a lack of lateral racking support. On the flip side, the systems that survived had the modules through bolted (no clamps), bolts with locking solutions, and lateral racking supports.

Making solar arrays more resilient in the face of natural disaster in the Caribbean would add only 5% in engineering, procurement, and construction, PMI estimates.

The Caribbean is far more exposed to hurricanes than Virginia is, but the questions PMI raises are certainly relevant here as the Commonwealth embarks upon an unprecedented build-up of solar capacity. Virginia could be getting as much as a quarter of its electric power from solar within 20 or 30 years. We want to make sure that power comes back on after a natural disaster.

What construction standards would be required to ensure that solar panels held up to a hurricane? Would the same standards need to apply across the state, or could they be relaxed for solar capacity farther from high-speed winds along the coast? How resilient would Virginia’s electric grid be if a hurricane knocked out 10% or 20% of the state’s solar capacity? Could we import enough power from elsewhere in the PJM Interconnection grid? How much would it cost to protect against a worst-case scenario?

As Virginia moves towards a solar future, I would think that these questions are worth asking.

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14 responses to “Hurricanes, Solar Panels and Construction Standards

  1. So should the standards be voluntary or required ? Should there be regulation or none? A standard Libertarian response would say that the govt should stay out of it and let the market decide, right? Or, if the govt is going to render disaster relief and subsidized insurance if needed, does that justify imposing standards on construction?

    This is not only solar panels but for instance – things like what kind of roofs should houses have in areas where there are forest fires… or special roof hurricane anchors for homes in areas where hurricanes hit? Stormwater regs to deal with impervious surfaces runoff. Should everyone be taxed by the amount of impervious surface they own towards storm water facilities – that did not happen in Houston and as a result many homes got flooded because
    not enough stormwater storage was built.

    Are govt-imposed standards the right answer or is the Libertarian philosophy of “you own it” the right philosophy?

  2. It will be the marketplace that imposes the standards. The insurance and lending marketplace.

  3. Then why have govt-imposed building standards if the “market” would have taken care of the problem?

  4. Cheap shot, Larry, and off the mark.

    In this case there are standards that are not government but industry imposed. Electric utilities build power plants to last, to be dependable; in fact they are paid a “capacity” rate for that dependability. If the unit turns out not to be as dependable as the industry expects for units like that, it will be disqualified from selling “capacity.” Perhaps there are also generic building standards for hurricane resistance that might apply in P.R., but they would probably be less stringent.

    PR’s electric company has been bankrupt for years; it fails to conform to industry standards in MANY, MANY ways. You can attribute that to government mismanagement or corruption or the laid-back nature of Island life or whatever, but an electric utility person will tell you that it’s also because they are not connected to the mainland grid and therefore don’t have to meet mainland industry standards. I believe the FERC also lacks regulatory jurisdiction there. Nobody is watching over their shoulder. So, in that sort of make-do, get-by environment, it’s hardly surprising that they cut corners, accepting shoddy, lowest-bidder work without adequate bid specs or construction oversight. Surprisingly they also don’t have that much solar gen. on P.R.; they have mostly ancient coal-fired generators. Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) has been a relentless promoter of renewables generation for years but they promote a quality version of solar and know what they are talking about.

    • To clarify: there are industry standards on the mainland, but nobody on P.R. is enforcing them. That was part of FEMA’s dilemma doing restoration work: try to restore it just like it was before the hurricane, or bring it up to current industry standards? FEMA gave up trying to improve things; the cost and time required of doing anything more than a bandaid job was too great.

  5. @Acbar – I was talking more in general about standards and regulations (govt) and the interplay between them.

    As Steve pointed out earlier – investors, banks, mortgage companies and insurers will require standards as a condition of approval.

    But Govt also plays a substantial role in requiring certain things to gain approval for building (i.e. hurricane straps, storm water , etc) as well as requirements to qualify for subsidized flood insurance, etc.

    My point was/is that the Libertarian doctrine of keeping the govt out and letting the market decide is not really the way things really work – except perhaps in 3rd world countries and developing countries of which I would posit Puerto Rico probably is not too far from despite the US law.

    • Agree with you on that last. I feel that’s the problem here. All the gov’t regulations/ building standards in the world won’t get you a well-built electric system when there’s no money (and we could have quite another discussion about where the money went), when the bureaucrats running the system have every fiscal incentive to cut corners, no externally-imposed industry standards to meet, and when the competing priorities are so great that it’s common practice to put off dealing with tomorrow’s problems until tomorrow.

    • (1) No one was making a pure Libertarian argument. You’re tilting at windmills.

      (2) But now that you bring it up, the private sector frequently creates industry standards through negotiation and mutual agreement without the necessity of government intervention. Sometimes government intervention is called for, but often it is not.

  6. I am with Larry on this one. First of all, I have to imagine that bits and pieces of solar panels become dangerous projectiles in a hurricane. If it costs 5% more to keep them bolted to the ground then that may be a price worth regulating. Second, I really want to see Dominion’s power in Virginia heavily diluted. This will be accomplished by allowing independent construction and operation of “solar farms” selling energy to PJM and regulations that prevent what happened to Puerto Rico from happening to Virginia. We’ve had earthquakes, derechos and a regular series of microbursts of late. I can easily imagine a cozy dinner at Bookbinders with Dominion or its lobbyists whispering sweet nothings in the ears of our legislators while promising untold campaign contributions if those legislators will just understand why Dominion has to supply all the power generation resilience.

    It’s hard to be a libertarian in Virginia because the deep state in Richmond is real. Until we break the stranglehold of Richmond’s special interests on our legislature and/or the stranglehold of our legislature on ourselves our only path forward is through brute force. Pick simple ideas like regulating the resilience of solar power generation and use that resilience to reduce the legal corruption capabilities of Dominion.

    Lock down solar and lock out Dominion!

    • Yes; watch out for unwarranted competitive roadblocks; but aside from that I’m confident solar is coming in a big way. Jim’s original question was, will it be safe? The answer is, it will be quite safe IF building codes and industry standards are adhered to, which is far more likely here than in P.R.

  7. Well… interesting argument. Regulations do increase up-front costs that are supposed to lower costs downstream but smaller and poorer operators will, if they can, use less expensive, cost-cutting so they can stay in business and/or build more stuff that will produce revenue.

    Here’s an example. Motels, of which I’m quite sure DJ is familiar. Anyone who has stayed in a less than stellar motel – which does happen sometimes – sees what is well-maintained and what is not… and the direct influence of the govt via regulation – requiring certain safety features – no matter what – even if other
    aspects of the facility are less than wonderful.

    Picture a motel – with 3rd world standards – i.e. few, if any standards….and you get the picture….

    Easy for me to contemplate of recent days as we camp, with motel backup, our way out west the last few weeks. We’ve seen the gamut and our next 8 days on the Colorado River will see much more basic but GRAND accommodations but still with the heavy hand of Govt regulation…. i.e. the kind of boat, it’s safety features, where you can camp…what you do with your poop, etc, etc, etc.

    So after today… BR gets what I’m sure will be thought of as a welcome break by some – for a few days…. However, I will spend some time as per my usual pondering all the ideas that percolate in BR.

    I may get in one or two more comments this morning… 6:45am here… we’ll see… gotta get all my “stuff” packed …

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