Hurricane Sandy: The Effect of Severe Weather on Wind and Solar Power

by ‐ Tags: benchmarking policy, alternative energy

Wind and solar energy systems are constantly in the open, exposed year-round to 
whatever weather or disaster events come their way. Therefore, wind turbines and solar panels are built to withstand the elements, but how do they fare when encountering an extreme event, like the recent destruction Hurricane Sandy produced in the eastern Unites States?

 

One recent and highly publicized event to test the durability of renewable energy systems during a disaster was the tsunami that hit Japan in March 2011, causing the Fukushima nuclear crisis. The Kamisu wind farm in eastern Japan, located 150 miles from the epicenter of the quake received similar seismic activity as the Fukushima nuclear plant, and survived the event well. It was fully operational in the days afterwards. In fact, most wind farms across eastern Japan were up and running within a few days of the earthquake and electric companies requested that they increase production as much as possible to make up for shortages nationwide.

However, Hurricane Sandy was a disaster of a completely difference nature, with winds gusting at extreme speeds. The first and perhaps most extreme test took place outside of the US, in Cuba, where Sandy created 110 mile per hour winds. Cuba’s two wind farms, one with six 750kw turbines and the other with six 850kw turbines, rode out the storm with negligible damage, they continued to supply power to the grid after the storm while power plants were down for days.

As Sandy hit the US, more wind farms in her path were tested. Including the Jersey-Atlantic wind farm, located near Atlantic City within 2 miles of the shore. The turbines there were reported to be in good shape and up and running a few days after the storm. In fact, according to the American Wind Energy Association, among the owners affected by Sandy who reported in after the storm, there was minimal damage to their turbines and most were back in production as soon as the storm had passed.

 

Picture, University of Delaware: Generally, wind turbines will shut down during storm force winds, face the wind and feather their blades to lower resistance (left). Most turbines performed as such during Sandy, and returned to power generation as winds died down (right).

Solar farms also fared quite well. Although they shut down operations during the storm itself, major solar producers, including Long Island’s 32 MW solar farm, reported very few problems after the storm and were ready to produce again as soon as their respective grids came back online.

The high rate of survivability of wind and solar systems during severe events is due in part to to the fact that individual instances of damage do not often result in a total failure of the station. For instance, if one solar cell or panel does down, the remainder of the farm can still operate. The same goes for a wind farm, where one blade or turbine can have an issue while the rest continue to produce power. This is a distinct advantage over nuclear and fossil fuel power plants, where one malfunction can cause the shutdown of an entire facility. During Sandy and other disasters, the success of renewable power systems was unfortunately paired with several major failures of nuclear and fossil fuel power stations--A situation that clearly points to the fact that renewable systems have significant practical advantages over traditional power plants, in addition to being a cleaner, more independent energy source.