Hurricane Wilma Power Outages Boost Solar Power in Florida
Florida Solar Energy Center
South Florida's Sun-Sentinel newspaper reports that Florida resident Pam Wall was able to relax while the rest of her neighbors were cloaked in darkness after Hurricane Wilma struck. The Fort Lauderdale resident still had all her modern conveniences -- working lights, TV, hairdryer, coffee pot and refrigerator -- all thanks to solar power.
Two solar-powered panels attached to the homemade sailboat docked in her back yard enabled Wall and her husband to enjoy all the noise-free, stress-free power they wanted while they waited almost three weeks for electricity to be restored to their house.
"We just lived on the boat and all the power we needed was from our solar panels," she said. "We didn't worry about fuel."
Wall is one of a small number of South Floridians who found solar power to be an effective alternative during times of disaster. The group's ranks are expected to grow, industry officials say, as residents realize how vulnerable they are to power outages and gas shortages each hurricane season. Also, new tax credits that go into affect on the first of January allow homeowners and businesses to deduct 30 percent of the cost of a solar-power system from their taxes, for a total credit of up to $2,000, according to the Energy Policy Act of 2005.
Instead of buying a gas generator this year in preparation for hurricane season, Dan Fieldman of Jupiter bought two solar panels for $683. After Wilma knocked out the electrical grid, he laid the panels out on his lawn, hooked them up to a car battery, attached a few small appliances and watched the World Series on TV as he checked his email.
"It was dead silent, it didn't stink up the place and I didn't have to worry about buying gas," he said. "I had a little color television and a laptop and a refrigerator. It was great."
There are drawbacks. Solar power is more expensive than regular electricity, needs sunshine to work and can be more difficult to set up.
Nonetheless, local governments are also getting in on the action, using solar-powered traffic signals and lights to make roads safer during outages. The city of Coral Springs used seven solar signals after the storm, and officials found them so successful they have ordered another four despite their hefty price tag of $10,000 each.
"They worked out wonderfully," said Police Chief Duncan Foster. "They have proved themselves in the man-hours we saved directing traffic. We didn't have to put an officer in those intersections and risk their safety."
Florida Solar Energy Center in Brevard, Florida
Jim Fenton, director of the Florida Solar Energy Center, the largest state-supported renewable energy research institute in the United States and a branch of the University of Central Florida, wants to take things a step further and lobby the state to install mobile solar-power systems at local schools that serve as hurricane shelters. That way, he said, the schools can save money on their energy bill during the year, have power if electricity is knocked out, and send out the mobile system after a storm if it is needed elsewhere.
For most, however, the advantage of solar energy during this year's outage was simply a surprise benefit to something they originally did for economic, environmental or practical reasons.
Tim Williamson, a Hollywood resident and pastor of Hollywood Hills Alliance Church, had a solar water heater installed at his home five years ago to save about $30 a month on his energy bill. It was such a luxury to have warm water after Wilma, he now says he would consider hooking up other solar-power systems.
"We were taking nice hot showers when everyone else was taking cold ones," Williamson said.
The main reason more people don't have a solar-power home is simple. It's pricey.
Diane Marshall of Key Largo spent about $24,000 to set up her solar-power home, which also purifies its own water and won her the 2005 "Green Building" Award from The Council for Sustainable Florida.
As a result, while there are tens of thousands of people with solar water heaters in the state, there are only a few hundred who have solar electric systems that power their homes, estimated Jim Dunlop, an engineer with the Florida Solar Energy Center.
Even with all that expense, there are technical challenges associated with using solar power during an outage, experts explain.
First off, there are two kinds of solar power: solar electric and solar thermal.
Solar-electric systems, also known as photovoltaic systems, use silicon cells on a solar panel to convert the sun's energy into direct current electricity. An inverter turns this electricity into power most appliances can use.
But to work at night and during periods of cloudiness, solar-electric homes need to incorporate a battery system that stores the solar power generated during daylight. Otherwise, they only work when the sun is shining.
Some choose to forgo such battery systems because they cost about 25 percent more, Dunlop said.
Solar water heaters, an example of a solar-thermal system, work much more simply by using the sun's energy to directly heat water. But they also have their quirks. For example, homeowners need to make sure they have a solar-powered water pump -- not an electric one -- as part of their solar water heater if they want hot water during a prolonged blackout.
Julie Joyce of Fort Lauderdale learned this the hard way when she lost hot water a few days after Wilma because her pump was electric. Two weeks into the outage, Joyce paid a company $640 to install a solar pump.
"Ahh, it was wonderful," she said, recalling her first hot shower, saying the price was worth it. "It's up there forever now."
Another concern: solar panels must be installed correctly so the panels don't fly off in a storm or become damaged.
Bone, the owner of a solar home on No Name Key, said the panels on his house did fine in the hurricane, but he has seen some homes where they have not. He said there are two ways to mount panels on roofs -- flush or, as was common in the 1980s before Hurricane Andrew, tilted to the south for maximum sun exposure. Tilted panels have a greater chance of catching wind and tearing off, he said. Most modern installations must meet strict building codes that certify they can withstand hurricane force winds.
Despite such drawbacks, those who have tried solar power say it is easy to get hooked on the silent, abundant energy source -- both during an outage and after.
"If I ever redo my house, I would put solar panels everywhere," said Wall, the solar sailboat owner. "You can use it all the time, not just during a hurricane."
Full Sun-Sentinel Article