Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Renewables Survive Hurricane Ian!

Beating a Hurricane with Solar and Batteries!

The community of Babcock Ranch, just outside of Fort Myers, FL, never lost power when hurrcane Ian deevasted the area. (FPL)

George Harvey

The sun doesn’t always shine, but so what?

Hurricane Ian didn’t prevent solar power and batteries from providing electricity 24/7 while it shut down the grid in Southwest Florida. The big thermal plants just could not deliver electricity on the failed grid, but the people in Babcock Ranch (BR) were living a rather normal life, in terms of their use of electricity.

Some people say we need baseload power plants for reliability, but the baseload plants had to shut down in the power failure. And as they showed us once more how unreliable they can be, the solar-plus-storage system at BR showed how well things can run.

Baseload power plants, whether they burn fossil fuels or react nuclear fuel, are vulnerable in ways that solar power and batteries are not. Baseload power plants are designed to deliver electricity at full power or not at all. Without the load of an active grid, they have to shut down. And when they shut down, it can be a long time for them to get back to full power. They have problems that a combination of solar power with batteries doesn’t have. And with those problems, there are reliability issues.

BR was designed and built for resilience. Among other things, this meant that the buildings were all designed to be difficult to flood. They were also designed to withstand the winds of major hurricanes.

The designers of the community got Florida Power & Light (FPL) to install a solar-plus-battery system that would support the 2,000 homes, with enough extra power that it would be sending more power to the grid than it needed at night. The first array, of 74.5 megawatts (MW), was installed in 2016, and since then a second of the same size has also been built (https://bit.ly/3eitkSB). Babcock Ranch laid claim to being the first community in the United States powered entirely by the sun.

In 2018, FPL inaugurated a battery storage system, which, at that time, was the biggest in the country. By the standards of today, four years later, the capacity of the system seems to be almost trivial, at 10 MW. It was, however, sufficient to the needs of the community, in an emergency, and it would help supply the grid with stable power. It was set up to detach from the rest of the grid in an emergency, so BR can operate as a microgrid, on a stand-alone basis. (https://bit.ly/3rJlLHO).

Hurricane Ian made landfall at about 3:00p.m. on Wednesday near Fort Myers, Florida. The eye of the storm was nearly 35 miles across, and hurricane-force winds extended 15 to 25 miles beyond the eye wall. After landfall, Ian continued to make its way to the northeast.

Babcock Ranch is about 25 miles northeast of Fort Myers. At the time Ian’s eye came ashore, BR may already have been experiencing hurricane-force winds, but the winds were sure to get stronger as the wall of the eye moved closer. BR, however, beat the hurricane. Its solar power and batteries gave it the ability to keep going while every other community was blacked out.

By the time Ian left Florida, over 2 million people had lost power. Unlike BR, those other communities were dependent on baseload plants, which operate at some distance from customers, supplying them through vulnerable power lines. Whether it happens because of damage at the plant, or because of cut power lines, when a baseload plant fails, it has to shut down. It cannot keep going because the power it generates has to go somewhere. Also, baseload power plants are inflexible and require other kinds of power plants to follow demand. If they fail, the baseload plants they support may have to shut down. Bear in mind that the baseload paradigm was developed a hundred years ago.

By contrast, solar power is easy to control, so it can be cut off if there is no load for it to supply. Batteries can be controlled to provide for demand rather precisely. Together, they are very flexible, and the power adjustment can happen automatically, using computer controls. Solar plus batteries can adjust to changes in load demand instantly, where the old baseload system took several minutes at least. That gives solar plus batteries an important advantage over the old baseload system. They can match demand quite well.

Looking at resiliency, however, we can see that a microgrid, powered by solar plus batteries, can be set up to keep going even when the grid fails. This is done by isolating it from the rest of the grid. For this, the system needs to be able to withstand whatever weather will hit it, so the electric lines were buried.

Some people who were at Babcock Ranch during Hurricane Ian have said that they were frightened by the storm. That is not surprising, because Ian was a major hurricane, and it hit them head-on. One thing that we know is that the solar array and the batteries suffered a small enough amount of damage that they just went on working.

Designed to be resilient, BR also has had no interruption to its water supply or internet. It is the only community in Southwest Florida where these systems have continued to operate, according to reports.

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