Solar Power Stayed On as Hurricane Ian Knocked Lights Out Across Florida

Source: By Jennifer Hiller, Wall Street Journal • Posted: Sunday, October 16, 2022

Storm was the first big test for some communities powered by solar farms and battery storage

An 840-acre solar farm and a battery storage system helped power Babcock Ranch, north of Fort Myers, Fla., through Hurricane Ian.PHOTO: JEFF GREENBERG/UNIVERSAL IMAGES GROUP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Neighborhoods powered by solar panels with backup batteries weathered the direct onslaught of Hurricane Ian in Florida, utilities and developers said, keeping the lights on throughout the storm while millions of others lost power.

At least three solar-powered communities near Fort Myers and Tampa made it through Ian without losing electricity. Some also had hardened electrical infrastructure, including buried lines and stronger power poles, that helped them weather the storm and its aftermath.

At the new Medley neighborhood south of Tampa, utility Tampa Electric Co. has a pilot project with 37 new homes equipped with utility-owned rooftop solar and home batteries. When Ian knocked out power to about 295,000 customers in the area, Medley was disconnected from the rest of the electric system, but it never lost power.

The power systems of the homes in Medley are linked and solar on the roof of one home has the ability to power neighboring houses, said Archie Collins, chief executive of Tampa Electric, a subsidiary of Emera Inc.

“They were isolated from the grid, and they rode through the entire hurricane without any loss of power, whereas the neighbors who weren’t on that microgrid unfortunately did lose power,” Mr. Collins said.

Workers tended to power lines in Fort Myers after Hurricane Ian.Photo: cristobal herrera-ulashkevich/Shutterstock

No power system is stormproof. In recent years, some solar infrastructure has weathered hurricanes unscathed while some has sustained damage—a continuing area of study for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, part of the U.S. Energy Department. To figure out best practices, the laboratory has looked at factors including system siting and design, maintenance and avoiding things such as solar rooftop overhangs that can catch the wind.

Ian represented the first serious test for some solar-powered communities in Florida. The storm made landfall Sept. 28 as a powerful Category 4 hurricane, devastating parts of southwest Florida with floods, high winds and storm surges before ripping across the state and leaving about 2.7 million customers without lights. More than 100 people died, and the storm made landfall later in South Carolina as a Category 1 hurricane.

Ian wrought significant damage to Florida’s electric infrastructure, especially to distribution lines that connect communities to the grid—a common point of failure during hurricanes and other storms.

Aging infrastructure and extreme weather events are affecting electric reliability across the U.S., causing more businesses and homeowners to buy backup generators and solar-plus-storage so they can go it alone when the grid fails. Microgrids, which can create islands of power for campuses, businesses or neighborhoods amid a wider blackout, grew more than sevenfold between 2010 and 2019, according to the industry group Edison Electric Institute.

Not everyone can afford the cost of such systems. Buying backup generators or solar panels requires upfront spending, and analysts say that adding batteries to homes with solar—which allows people to disconnect from the grid during emergencies—generally extends the time it takes for the system to pay for itself and isn’t an investment that makes sense on a purely financial basis. There is also no guarantee that backup power or a business or neighborhood microgrid will escape severe weather unscathed.

Solar paired with storage fared relatively well during Hurricane Ida in Louisiana in September 2021, including at a 50-unit affordable apartment building that kept power as the storm knocked out transmission lines carrying electricity into New Orleans.

Logan Burke, executive director of the nonprofit Alliance for Affordable Energy in New Orleans, said the systems can help beyond storms by relieving pressure on the grid during periods of high demand.

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In Babcock Ranch north of Fort Myers, an 840-acre solar farm and a battery storage system helped power the master-planned community. Babcock Ranch wasn’t completely self-sufficient—it pulled power from the grid when Ian’s storm clouds arrived, but was able to do so because all of the electrical lines are buried to avoid wind damage, said Eric Silagy, CEO of utility Florida Power & Light, a unit of NextEra Energy Inc. that owns and operates the solar farm and battery.

Solar came back online to power the community the morning after the storm passed, when much of southwest Florida was without power. In all, Florida Power & Light had 38 solar farms in the path of the storm, with just 0.3% of its 11.7 million panels damaged, Mr. Silagy said.

Resident Ryan Foelske said the lights flickered a few times during the storm, prompting him and his wife to precool the house and prepare for the loss of air conditioning. But the power stayed on, and their kindergartner and second-grader watched Disney+ without interruption. “The kids were freezing and complaining about the cold,” Mr. Foelske said.

In Cortez, Fla., south of Tampa Bay, the 21 homes in the Hunters Point neighborhood also kept power during the hurricane. They are equipped with rooftop solar and batteries and built 16 feet above the flood zone, said developer Marshall Gobuty, who plans to build a total of 86 homes and 20 condos there.

“We just didn’t build regular houses,” said Mr. Gobuty, who added there was some luck involved for how well the development fared.

“Murphy’s Law follows every human being,” he added. “I’ll take the luck.”

Write to Jennifer Hiller at jennifer.hiller@wsj.com