Managing solar assets in the time of extreme weather
Extreme weather remains the leading cause of insurance claims in the renewable energy sector, prompting calls to design more resilient solar panels and tracking software.
In 2021, the United States experienced a record-breaking 20 weather or climate disasters that each resulted in at least US$1 billion in damage.
Senior director of design and engineering at Nextracker, Alex Roedel, said that while the industry has made strides to counter extreme weather, much more needs to be done.
“Wind still dominates the frequency and financial severity of claims. Hail is coming to the forefront of risk, based on install locations and changes in panel technology, while floods, wildfire, snow and earthquakes still factor in risk assessments,” he said in an educational session at the RE+ renewable energy conference in California.
Though solar panels are designed to withstand winds, data shows that more frequent damage incurred during hurricane seasons due to solar panel racking, which can be dislodged during high winds, if installed poorly.
Debris, fallen tree branches or other hazards can also damage solar panels.
Roedel recommended that wind tunnel tests be updated to properly assess large format solar modules.
He also urged solar operators to consider the direction in which panels are placed, noting that front winded is the best and safest position.
“While we do have some module standards, we are not testing the right things. We have a sandbag test that goes on top but in a storm things move quickly. It does not equate to a gradual sandbag test,” Roedel said.
He added that one of the most important wind mitigation strategies is a safe stow position. In this position, the modules are tilted into a favourable position to maintain the structure’s safety. Stow event planning was therefore critical in keeping solar assets safe, he said.
“Our modules are getting bigger and cheaper but what we also have is thinner glass. The modules we are producing today for high risk regions are more vulnerable than the modules we had in the past,” he explained, adding that wind frequency matters as some sites are at higher risk than others.
The software can be used to preset conditions to respond in the event of grid or power loss to protect systems without additional equipment.
“Standalone events or simultaneous weather events will change priorities and positions. However, each site can have custom strategies based on location, weather risks, module technology and risk tolerance,” said Roedel.
Referencing a World Meteorological Organization study, United in Science, linking the rise of extreme weather to the use of fossil fuels, Roedel said the more solar energy plants that can be deployed globally, the greater chance countries will have at changing these deadly cycles.