Extreme hailstorms are destroying solar power farms – but protecting them might be easier than it seems

This story was originally This article is published on Inside Climate News and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

When baseball-sized hail hits a solar panel at speeds of over 90 miles per hour, the result is not pretty.

We saw this in March, when hail damaged parts of the 350-megawatt Fighting Jays solar project in southeast Texas. Social media and news coverage circulated photos of thousands of panels dotted with white circles of broken glass. Right-wing outlets were eager to exaggerate what they saw as evidence of the unreliability of solar power.

The reality about hail and solar panels is more complicated, and not so dire.

Solar energy developers and manufacturers have taken steps to reduce the risk from hail, including a combination of sophisticated weather forecasting and panels that can turn to avoid a direct hit. I recently spoke to some people who do this work.

First, let’s understand the problem: Climate change is increasing the severity of storms, including hail.

What’s more, according to the International Energy Agency, solar power is the world’s fastest-growing electricity source, and is part of a mix of renewable sources that is on track to produce most of the world’s electricity by mid-century.

Right now, instances of hailstorms damaging solar power farms are so rare that they're still notable, such as those that occurred in southeast Texas this year and in western Nebraska last year. But what about in 20 years, when hailstorms are going to be more severe and solar power will cover a lot more land?

There is no perfect way to protect solar panels from hail, but there are ways to minimize the risk.

“There's actually something that can be done,” said Renee VanDeWege, vice president of weather operations for Minnesota-based DTN Co. DTN's subscription-based products include weather forecasts for use by energy companies.

“We have patented the ability to measure hail size within the radar technology,” he said. “When scanning storms, you get feedback that tells you the storm is producing two-inch diameter hail, or whatever the scenario may be.”

This data is most useful if the solar panels are equipped with devices that can react to an oncoming storm by adjusting the angle of the panel to minimize damage.

Nearly all utility-scale projects being built today use trackers, which are systems that rotate panels in the direction of the sun during the day. Some of those trackers have the ability to go into “stow” mode, meaning they turn quickly to avoid a direct hit.

For example, Nextracker, a California-based maker of solar tracking systems, sells hail mitigation products that combine weather forecasts from DTN and others, and use the data to adjust panel angles ahead of hail. The systems are operated with software that can be used both on-site and remotely, and they have battery backups to work during power outages.

“Will solar power development and construction continue in hail-prone areas? The answer is yes,” said Greg Beardsworth, senior director of product marketing at Nextracker. “The way to make this happen is to understand the magnitude of the risk based on location, select the appropriate combination of module technology and tracker stowing capabilities.”

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