Commentary: How residential solar will save lives in the Intermountain West

In the event of a natural disaster, emergency preparedness is what sets those who live from the people who don’t.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Solar panels are installed on the roof of a Farmington home. Based on the first quarter, Utah is on track to have more rooftop solar installed in 2016 than in all previous years combined. Adopters say that's because, in the last few months, it has become possible to replace your entire power bill with solar panels ó and with state and federal tax credits in place for at least the next year, it still is possible to get the government to refund you almost half the cost.

The Intermountain West has citizens sharper than most, but they are still oblivious to a fault — the fault right beneath their noses, feet, and homes. The fault whose tectonic plates have carved out a chasm into which dinner plates (and other more important things) will fall.

The Wasatch Fault in Utah is active, spanning 240 miles. It contains several segments, each capable of producing an earthquake hitting 7.5 magnitude on the Richter scale (Major). The consequences of earthquakes can be felt thousands of kilometers away.

When earthquakes happen, the grid goes down. With solar and backup, Utahns can power things in their homes without the grid. And, if you own an electric vehicle, you can use it to power your car and skip town while everyone else is rushing to the overcrowded gas stations, as was the case with Hurricane Irma.

Much of Utah is what geologists classify as a basin. The energy from an earthquake in a basin reverberates the effects far and wide, making for cataclysmic destruction.

The Utah 2008 Natural Hazards Handbook lists natural disasters likely to happen in Utah. This list ranges from landslides and floods to radon gas and snow avalanches. Small earthquakes along the Wasatch fault are the most likely (and overdue) to occur. Utah is overdue for some major earthquakes.

The Wasatch fault has several segments that periodically go off. Some of these segments are long overdue for large quakes. The Seismology Society of America has more frightening statistics for Utah. As of 2017, there is a 43 percent chance of the Wasatch front region experiencing a 6.75 earthquake. There is a 57 percent chance of at least one magnitude 6.0 earthquake in the next 50 years.

Coal plants (which still supply the vast majority of American energy), function much differently than solar panels do during natural disasters.

They are usually shut down the moment there’s a natural disaster warning, or rendered inoperable in the event of a fault like eruption that affects its mechanisms. If the coal facility is damaged by the natural disaster, it will be shut down even longer for rebuilding and clean up.

Without residential solar, you’ll need luck preventing that week’s batch of groceries from going bad in the fridge. Additionally, most of these coal plants rely on grid transposal to send energy to any disaster-affected areas.

This makes sending energy to affected areas from external power sources impossible. The floodgates are opened for even more damage.

Residential solar can bring Utahns security. One of the foremost byproducts of a natural disaster is a loss of electrical supply. And this doesn’t just apply to large-scale, grid-tied commercial systems; it applies to everyday residences as well.

Earthquakes don’t affect sunlight, though they can temporarily cause a cloud of debris. Earthquakes have the least impact on the part of the home farthest away from the root of the problem - the roof. This puts the panels in a position to absorb light and produce electricity when the ground erupts. The same logic holds true for a flood.

Although inclement weather is not conducive to optimal electricity generation from solar panels, the panels will still produce some energy, making them preferable over traditional energy generation methods in emergencies.

With solid racking, less to break and increasingly sturdy engineering, contemporary solar arrays are incredibly damage-resistant. What’s more, these systems have no drips, fuel repositories or combustion mechanisms. Their durability is a force to be reckoned with, much like the disasters nature wields in seemingly increased numbers.

If you feel many news stations and media moguls over-hype the many possible and “long overdue” natural disasters in America, you aren’t just wrong about whether they’ll occur, but also because of how ill-equipped most of us are to deal with these disasters when they strike.

In the event of a natural disaster, emergency preparedness is what sets those who live from the people who don’t.

Scott Cramer

Scott Cramer is president of Go Solar Group, Murray.