The four elements—fire, water, wind, and earth—can cause startlingly devastating damage to utility scale solar sites. Solar Support hosted the first in their Restoration + Repowering webinar series to discuss opportunities to mitigate and tips to prepare for when natural disasters and weather-related damage happens.
Katie Hoepfl, VP of Business Development for Tonian Renewables; Wade Fitzgerald, Chief Operating Officer of Solar Support; and Auston Taber, CEO & Founder Of Solar Support, all came together for a fireside chat to talk about what they’ve seen in the past, what worked, and what didn’t.
Fire: Plan early and often
Fifty percent of all solar PV insurance claims come down to weather-related issues. Thirty-six percent of all claims are related to fire.
Even though the data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) shows that there are significantly less fire incidents, they were the most costly overall.
“As we all know, fire damage is never contained to just the piece of equipment,” Katie shared. “It affects everything around it. Something relatively small can continue to escalate.”
Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)
Vegetation management was the root cause of fire incidents Katie has seen in her 12 years of experience in the Solar industry. “It comes up on the daily with customers, and we see it put into lender and insurance requirements. It’s not just the brush that gets caught, but the back of the panels, the A/C cabling, connectors, and everything in between.” Katie said vegetation is an important aspect of discussions for solar site asset owners to have not just with the O&M provider, but with their own teams, early and often.
Wade shared that working with local utilities and fire departments are crucial. “Fire season gets longer every year… with the defensible space and infrastructure, you do have to work with vegetation management, gravel roads, fire breaks, but also work with local fire departments and utilities.” Having a plan in place so local first responders would know how to work safely within the solar field is key.
Additionally, Katie stressed that the people who did the fire planning last year may not be there currently; reviewing fire plans on a regular basis should be a part of the PM process on every site.
Water: Stay safe and avoid moisture
Wade shared a story about a solar site that required someone to kayak out to check on it… only to find gators swimming in the flooded field. “I’ve seen entire combiner boxes filled up, causing catastrophic failures,” Wade said. “With any moisture or water in an electric field, there are a vast array of outcomes.”
Katie said that many asset owners think they’re ok just fixing what has been damaged, but with water damage, there are downstream effects. “With hail, we can’t assume the stowing functionality is in place. If it’s not as easy as a couple of buttons to take care of that, by the time we got there and stowed the equipment, the storm may have come and gone.”
Wind: Trackers may not pick up on tornadoes
“A lot of problems with wind include trouble with trackers,” Auston said. “You can have great trackers, and can do ok, but what we’ve seen is tier 2 and tier 3 manufacturers sometimes have more trouble with wind.”
Wade said that if they don’t have dampeners, equipment in higher wind zones, sites can sometimes form a wind tunnel and you’ve got modules flying. “Making sure everything is up to spec with preventive maintenance and inspections is important,” Wade said. “Really plan on the front-end and build it to where you can have the least impact with a force majeure situation with winds.”
“One type of wind event that could occur that wouldn’t have your tracker respond would be in the event of tornados,” Katie said. “Wind forms above the trackers and can set down inside it… there’s not much to be done from a prevention standpoint, but having a plan is important to get back up and running quickly.”
When wind is coming from outside the array, the site is reliant on the equipment to do what it needs to do to protect itself. So checking the equipment’s communications is important to ensure it’s set up to respond. “Making sure everything is congruent with resources and data you have will help,” Wade said. “You’re not going to get out there faster, but you want your equipment to be ready to go into a protective stow.”
Earth: Planning for sand, grading, and more
Katie shared a project that had to have a site regraded because of the wind creating culverts around the site as it came down the mountain.
Wade said that sand can be a big problem, especially in the southwest. “With heavy winds, lots of sand, and little vegetation to cool it down, it can be a problem,” Wade said. “Sand can be full of metallic conductive particles, so be sure to choose an inverter with good filtration systems, and be sure your OEM provider is swapping out filters.”
Auston described different inverter cooling systems with heat exchangers. “What happens on some of these inverters, when the doors open, is when they bring in outside air, bugs, dirt, moisture coming into the equipment… we saw condensation one time dripping down into the IGBTs that were from earth getting into the unit.”
Regular earthquakes and sinkholes are also a risk to be factored into your geotech before land is acquired—so you can plan ahead for the best outcomes.
Restoration team, assemble!
“We definitely want to walk away from this an emphasis on the importance of having a plan in place,” Auston shared to event attendees. “You can mitigate a lot of things, but other things you can’t… so you need a solid plan in place.”
Katie shared that in addition to the plan, a culture of open and honest, transparent communication with your O&M provider and technicians is essential. “This will relay into corrective maintenance and then if you get to an emergency event, you know there will be good communication.”
Wade said that with those plans and communication, if you have everything working hard on the front end you won’t deal with such a snowball in the event of a natural disaster.Be sure to follow to stay informed of upcoming events!