By Irina Ivanova MoneyWatch September 25, 2018, 9:24 AM Hurricane Florence shows renewable energy is resilient, too

Nearly two weeks after Hurricane Florence passed through North and South Carolina, thousands of residents are still without electricity, and power plant coal-ash basins have overflowed.

A dam breach at the L.V. Sutton Power Station, a retired coal-fired power plant near Wilmington, North Carolina, has sent coal ash — a form of industrial waste created by burning coal for electricity — flowing into a nearby river. A different plant near Goldsboro has three flooded soil-covered ash basins, according to the Associated Press. And in South Carolina, floodwaters are threatening ash pits, the Post and Courier reported.

But solar installations, which provide less than 5 percent of North Carolina's energy, were up and running the day after the storm, according to GTM. And while half of Duke Energy's customers were without power at some point, according to CleanTechnica, the utility's solar farms sustained no damage.

For environmental advocates, the slow recovery after Florence is a sign the U.S. needs to move faster toward clean, renewable energy.

The cool thing about solar and wind energy farms is that when a hurricane hits them they don't spill toxic coal ash into drinking water, potentially sickening or killing countless people.

— John Iadarola (@johniadarola) September 22, 2018

"If the federal government doesn’t take action and doesn’t move in the right direction, we will not only be equally unprepared the next time a major storm hits, we’ll likely be less prepared." —SELC's Geoff Gisler on #HurricaneFlorence response @politico

— SELC (Envrnmntl Law) (@selc_org) September 20, 2018

The push comes in response to the Trump administration's move last year to prop up coal and nuclear plants under the argument that because they can store their fuel on-site, they can provide constant power and thus serve national security purposes. But Florence's shutting down of one nuclear plant and breaches of old coal ash ponds show that no source of power is immune, environmentalists say.

The vast majority of power failures that happen during storms occur because transmission lines or substations get damaged — not because fuel runs out. Above-ground lines, vulnerable to wind, rain and hail, can even fail during a thunderstorm, let alone a hurricane.

Redistribution of power

A 2017 study by Rhodium Group, which examined all power outages between 2012 and 2016, found that essentially none were due to a lack of fuel to generate power. This scenario is repeating itself in Florence's aftermath, energy analysts said.

The extreme flooding from Florence was another reason that power took time to come back, despite facilities like wind and solar farms remaining unscathed.

"No electric company is going to power their lines when they're underwater," said Chris Burgess, projects director at the Rocky Mountain Institute. "It's dangerous because you have transformers underwater, people's meters underwater, underground switchgear. The utility just needs time for the water to go down," he said.

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Hurricane Florence strikes southeastern U.S.

A powerful, slowly-moving storm slammed into the Carolinas, bringing deadly storm surges and flooding

To Burgess, Florence — and last year's hurricanes, in particular Maria — make the case for "distributed power," such as rooftop solar panels.

In Puerto Rico, although Maria took out the power grid, locations that had their own solar installations, including a farm and a community center, were able to stay open.

"Solar is resilient — there are a ton of cases where, as long as the roof stays attached, the solar array stays attached as well. That's the real takeaway," he said. Given its elevation, a rooftop solar installation has a better chance of survival than power lines or transformers closer to the ground.

It's precisely after a storm that customer interest in solar spikes, several energy companies that operate in North and South Carolina said.

"Storm readiness and disaster preparedness, particularly in the Southeast, are major factors for people in going solar," said Tyson Grinstead, Southeast director of policy for Sunrun, a company that leases rooftop solar panels. "As we see more and more storms, we're seeing more and more customers come to us and see what their options are to provide for themselves."

In Florida, Sunrun has had success with systems that include solar panels and a storage battery, Grinstead said. A battery acts much like a generator and can keep critical appliances running during a power outage.

Sunrun, which is the largest leased solar panel provider in South Carolina, reported no effects from Florence in that state. (The company doesn't operate in North Carolina.) NC Solar Now, the largest solar provider in North Carolina, also reported no issues during Florence. Yes Solar Solutions, which has close to 3,000 megawatts of solar installed in North Carolina, received several inquiries during the storm from customers wanting to install solar systems, GTM reported. Only six of the company's 800 customers reported problems after Florence.

Blowing in the wind

"A hurricane can be either really good news for wind generation or too much of a good thing," said Wade Schauer, a research director at Wood Mackenzie Power and Renewables. North Carolina's only wind farm, the Amazon facility near Elizabeth, powered through the storm, even generating electricity through part of it.

"The wind farm experienced no damage and no noticeable water or drainage issues," said Paul Copleman, a spokesperson for Avangrid Renewables, which owns and runs the farm. The result would have been different if Florence had hit the farm directly, he noted — the facility is in the northeastern part of the state, and Florence turned south along the coast.

A U.S. wind farm experienced a hurricane directly last year, when Hurricane Harvey shut down several wind facilities on the Gulf Coast of Texas. But they powered back up within days, The Wall Street Journal reported, while several refineries shut down and coal-fired power plants flooded.

Hurricane-force winds do have the power to take apart wind turbines, as happened in China in 2013, but newer turbines are very wind-resistant, with one model designed to operate in a typhoon.

"Major manufacturers are basically designing typhoon-rated wind turbines, for really, really heavy winds," said Burgess, pointing to examples in the North Sea. "Anything installed in the last couple of years, they are very, very resistant to wind and extremely resistant to flooding," he said.

The need for more storm-resistant equipment is clear: More and more wind farms are being built near the coasts at the same time that storms become stronger and more frequent.

Still, because wind farms connect to a grid, they won't protect against the outages caused by transmissions breakdowns. That's another vote for battery power, Burgess said.

"When transmission lines are down, it doesn't matter how many power plants you have," he said. "What's more important at that moment is that your critical facilities — hospitals, shelters, ATMs — they have local power."

Hurricane Florence strikes southeastern U.S.