EMP and solar PV in the same breath

Electromagenetic Pulses

Protecting from electromagnetic pulse events in solar installations, using satellites to help operate and maintain isolated PV power plants

Solar photovoltaic system designers, installers, operators and owners have to contend with a lot of natural and unnatural challenges over the lifetime of the array. Everything from crazy-intense weather, rodent infestations, bird poop, equipment underperformance or failure, grid friendliness issues, shoddy installation practices, the odd roof fire, and more populate the “potential challenges” list. But how many PV pros have given any thought to what some defense analysts call one of the gravest potential threats to our national security (and a recurring plot device in certain dystopian books, TV and movies)? I’m talking about the issue of electromagnetic pulses, or EMPs, caused by a nuclear explosion or solar-storm event, which could knock down a big chunk of our grid and fry much of the technology that depends on it. A new feature at Solar Industry addresses the issue as it pertains to solar, and the prognosis is pretty good—if certain things are kept in mind.

EMPologists Don White and Jerry Emanuelson note that, for the most part, PV systems would come through a cosmic pulse in decent shape. “Basic solar panel installations are resistant to the severe solar storm threat since solar storms are only a threat to equipment like the large transformers at central generating stations and substations,” they write. “Distributed power systems, such as grid-interconnected solar, could keep the local power grid partially operational during a severe solar storm as long as sufficient solar power is available to the grid. Solar storms would not harm the actual power lines, and it is very unlikely that distribution transformers–such as those on power poles–would be affected.”

The effects from a nuke-induced EMP would be a bit more problematic (no kidding!), but properly shielded PV systems would survive. Apparently, one key is preparing the rooftop, and spending just a bit more upfront to protect against this kind of catastrophic event. Thanks to Solar Industry for one of the more unexpected, fascinating short reads of late—although I’m not sure why the original Sept. 26 post disappeared for several days before reappearing this week.

Speaking of SI mag (no, not Sports Illustrated), the main story of the just-arrived October 2013 digital edition covers another topic with a space angle—the use of satellites to manage, operate and maintain PV installations. The contributed feature by Santerno’s Andrea Casella relates how those eyes in the sky can help effectively monitor and control, along with a Web-based system, remote solar fields around the clock. The company’s technical director goes into some detail about which communications protocols are necessary and how much bandwidth one would need, and addresses one of the key challenges with satellite Internet comms—latency. Santerno, which developed its own satellite PV monitoring system in 2007-08 for rural sites in Sardinia and Sicily, solved this problem with a bit of clever IP and now has the means to maintain “a secure satellite connection under any condition.”

Almost any condition, except a solar-storm or nuclear explosion-induced electromagnetic pulse event, that is.