One of green power's features is that it is relatively safe and resilient when a disaster like last week's super storm that disabled New York City's power grid.
Unlike fossil fuel plants, wind and solar require no combustible fuels to generate electricity. And there is no danger that they will leak radiation or toxic gasses into surrounding communities.
Previously, the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear poured radioactive material into the sea, and contaminated food and water supplies, following last year’s tsunami in Japan.
When Hurricane Sandy hit, safely officials kept a careful eye on the nuclear power plants in the region, shutting down three in New York and New Jersey. Similar nuclear plant concerns arose during Hurricanes Irene and Katrina. Elsewhere, the smell of natural gas in flooded areas drew quick attention from those who recognized the danger.
Meanwhile, solar and wind farms in the Northeast caused little public anxiety compared to fossil and nuclear fuel infrastructure. These anxieties underscore a critical difference between renewable and conventional generation.
Namely, wind and solar operate under simpler systems that are prone to fewer problems. Neither require additional energy inputs to produce electricity or cool a reactor. Nor is there any need for natural gas, oil or coal to be excavated, transported and applied to the system.
Instead, they produce electricity by taking advantage of a form of energy that is already available – wind and sun. They also mimic nature in design, so they tend to be more resilient and withstand natural disasters better. By utilizing a natural cell-like structure, wind and solar are less likely than conventional power plants to succumb to a cascading failure.
The simplicity also offers practical benefits. It can take nuclear plants a week or more to come back online after being shut down. Wind and solar, like other generators, do shut down during extreme weather conditions as a precaution, but they can be back up and produce power almost immediately.
Early assessments show renewable energy facilities fared well during Hurricane Sandy. No reports of any damage to wind or solar facilities from the storm in New England.
In Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Pennsylvania, minimal damage to renewable systems was reported. While the Long Island Power Authority’s 1.1 million customers saw extensive disruption of service, the island’s 32-MW Long Island Solar Farm came through with little trouble. Damage to the fence and a small number of modules was rapidly repaired.
Hurricane Sandy showcased the benefits of renewable energy generation systems in disaster and extreme weather situations. We can only hope lessons learned about renewable energy performance in storms will add a new dimension to policy decisions affecting the future role of wind and solar.