EWG News and Analysis
The latest from EWG’s staff of experts >>
Hurricane Florence Knocked Out N.C. Coal and Nuclear Plants, but Solar and Wind Were Back Online the Next Day
As Hurricane Florence approached North Carolina last month, Duke Energy was busy securing power plants to weather the storm. Duke, by far the state’s largest electric utility, shut down its Brunswick nuclear plant near the coast, leaving diesel generators running to circulate the necessary cooling water to avoid a catastrophic meltdown. It powered down its solar farms and set them to reduce wind damage. What the utility could not control was Florence’s wind and rain, and the flooding the storm left in its wake.
According to the Washington Post, post-Florence flooding in North Carolina released an estimated 150 truckloads of toxic sludge, known to contain “arsenic, lead, mercury, chromium” and other toxins, from a coal ash waste pit into the Cape Fear River. It also caused the shutdown of a natural gas plant at that same site. Samples tested by Earthjustice showed the flooding of three other coal ash waste pits.
One of the Brunswick nuclear reactors wasn’t brought back online until five days after Florence’s landfall, and the other took over a week to bring back online. Flooding initially prevented staff from accessing the site.
By contrast, renewable energy facilities bounced back almost immediately.
According to CBS, the only wind farm in the state survived unscathed. GreenTech Media reports solar panels were back online immediately as the storm passed, unless power line damage made that impossible. Solar farms were brought online remotely. Solar rooftop installers reported that virtually all the installed systems survived the storm and were running.
In the wake of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, farms and other facilities that run on solar power continued to operate even as most of the island was without power for months, and a community center continued to operate due to its solar installations. Now there is a movement to install decentralized solar power across the island in anticipation of future storms.
Wind turbines have also proven resilient to severe storms and natural disasters. Texas wind farms near the coast ceased operations during Hurricane Harvey only because of downed transmission lines. Others continued to run. Wind was a primary source of power in Japan after the 2011 catastrophic earthquake and ensuing tsunami, while the Fukushima nuclear plant melted down, spewing toxic radiation into the air and ocean.
But climate change is anticipated to fuel even stronger hurricane force winds in the future that would likely damage older designs. In response, offshore wind turbines are now being designed to withstand winds of 200 mph or more. Moreover, such designs will likely result in a cost reduction for these turbines.
The resiliency of wind and solar technology in the wake of severe weather, as opposed to the vulnerability of coal plants, their waste pits, and nuclear and natural gas plants, cuts to the heart of several critical issues.
First, it’s not just the ability of a power plant to survive a storm that matters, but also how much time is needed to get it back online. In the wake of storms that force nuclear and coal plants to shut down, restarting them is a slow process – up to two weeks for a nuclear plant, and anywhere from 13 to 75 hours for coal plants to start generating power. Undamaged wind and solar technology can restart virtually immediately, depending on the state of power lines. Undamaged rooftop solar does not depend on power lines to deliver electricity to a home or business.
Second, as we anticipate an increase in more severe weather events, it is critical to assess the vulnerabilities of different types of power generation sources. In particular, nuclear plants and toxic coal waste pits in hurricane-prone zones are ticking time bombs. For the sake of public health and safety, we should move quickly to shut them down and replace them with a mix of renewables, energy efficiency, energy storage and other benign resources – which is feasible. Although there is no perfect solution for toxic coal waste, we should move it away from these areas to the most secure landfills we can design.
Third, water-cooled coal, nuclear and natural gas plants are not only vulnerable to storms, but vulnerable to drought or heat. For instance, a 2013 study from the Department of Energy projected that 100 coal plants, mostly in the Southeast, are vulnerable to water shortages. Wind, rooftop solar, energy storage and energy efficiency require no water.
Fourth, the argument by the Trump Administration that resilience of power generation is based on its access to fuel supply is bunk. A 2017 study by Rhodium Group demonstrated that power lines damaged by severe weather caused the vast majority of blackouts, with fuel issues being far less than 1 percent.
The bottom line: A critical component of electric system resiliency means moving power generation as much as possible to as close to where it’s needed as possible – such as solar panels on rooftops. As Chris Burgess, projects director at the Rocky Mountain Institute, remarked to CBS in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, “Solar is resilient – there are a ton of cases where, as long as the roof stays attached, the solar array stays attached as well."