The booming solar industry is about to face its first major durability test with Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm that is expected to hit the Carolina coast by late Thursday.
Fueled in large part by government mandates and lucrative subsidies, the U.S. solar industry has experienced unprecedented growth in the last few years. At the epicenter of this expansion is North Carolina, a state that now ranks second in the nation in terms of its electric solar capacity, according to the Energy Information Administration. North Carolina in 2016 reached a total installed solar capacity of 3,288 megawatts — much of which sits in Hurricane Florence’s path.
A major hurricane has not hit the Carolina coast since the solar boom began in 2014. Florence, which is expected to cause as much as $30 billion in damages, will put the new solar installations to the test.
“Absolutely,” Tom Werner, the chief executive officer of SunPower, stated to Bloomberg, describing his concern for the situation. “If the panels were vertical to the ground, it would be like a sail to the wind. That would be the worst case.”
Intense storms have damaged utility-scale solar in the past. Chemicals within solar panels, such as cadmium and lead, can become to the local environment if water washes it into the ground
Hurricane Irma, for example, destroyed a solar farm in St. Thomas, an island in the Virgin Islands, in September 2017. About a month later, Puerto Rico’s second largest solar farm lost a majority of its panels when Hurricane Maria touched down, dealing a heavy blow to the island’s solar industry. . (RELATED: Should People Be Worried About A Nuclear Plant Standing In Hurricane Florence’s Path?)
Solar leaders are currently preparing for the worst, however. Hurricane Florence was carrying 130 mph winds as of Wednesday. The newer solar panels in its path can reportedly withstand winds up to 140-160 mph, enabling them to tolerate the hurricane’s strength.
Furthermore, companies are changing the angle of solar power trackers — devices that allow panels to turn throughout the day and consistently face the sun — so they would be least impacted by winds.
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