Will an electromagnetic pulse affect PV solar panels?

In the ten years since I first fell in love with PV solar (photovoltaic) technology, I have been answering questions from pioneering adopters and thought I’d heard them all. That was until asked, “whether an electromagnetic pulse will affect my solar panels?

Sunspots produce X-flares.

Sunspots produce X-flares.

In celebration of Power My Home’s 10th birthday, I will answer this most unusual of questions.

Upon further enquiry, I discovered the nature of this question stemmed from worries about the current peak solar activity and more than usual solar flares which are currently being ejected out by the sun.

If one of these super-massive coronal mass ejections (CMEs) were to give the Earth a direct hit, then this would bath the planet and our solar panels with electromagnetic waves, but not pulses.

The question was valid, and so I set out to investigate the answer to this somewhat unusual problem, but there is a difference between CMEs and electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) which is a by-product of a nuclear weapons discharge and other modern-day weaponry if you believe the rumours.

As always with questions like these, there is good news and bad news.

The least likely occurring threat to your solar technology could be a solar mass ejection hit, but very likely will disrupt traditional power lines.

The most substantial known CME to hit the earth happened in 1859 which disrupted the telegraph system of the time. With today’s technology, a CME could cause many times the amount of damage to power lines and infrastructure. Smaller known CMEs have occurred in 1972 and 1989, and the good news is that photovoltaic solar panels weren’t affected at these times.

The cause of the damage comes from the surge in power which the power lines and transformers are exposed to when the unusually high volumes of solar particles charge the network.

If a CME were to hit your solar panels, then the inverter that is load-protected and fused would cause your system to shut down automatically. If your inverter was specified correctly, then in most cases, your inverter will be over-specified for your system anyway. The worst-case scenario will mean your inverter will blow a fuse and a simple fuse change will get your solar panels back to full working order.

If the outside power network is affected by outages such as those experienced by Quebec in Canada in 1989, then your photovoltaic system will automatically shut down to protect itself. Once the power companies engineers have completed their repairs, then it will automatically start-up again.

For owners of solar heating panels such as evacuated tubes then the same is true with your solar controller that’s protected by your home’s internal trip switches. No known issues are known to affect these types of solar heating technologies.

Satellite technology encompassing PV solar technology have been circulating our planet since the 1950s while enduring varying amounts of solar weather and most are still operational today, so this, I think best proves that you have nothing to worry about, but everything to gain when installing this misunderstood technology.

A threat to your solar technology could be an electromagnetic pulse but is very unlikely

And returning to the original question, a small electromagnetic pulse can occur naturally via a lightning strike, but like the lottery jackpot, you have a minimal chance of coming across one. This issue brings us to human-made EMPs caused by modern weaponry.

In the event of such a strike, the affected area will see most forms of modern and delicate electronics damaged. An EMP strike works by reverse magnetising and overheating nearby electrical systems. In other words, your iPhone will be toasted.

Solar panels are vulnerable to the EMP effect, but the real danger to most people comes not from a direct strike, but from the indirect effects which will occur later.

The only way to protect your system is to incase your inverter inside a Faraday cage, but protecting yourself from the indirect effects would be much harder to achieve.

Your photovoltaic panels should be OK, but your definite inverter is at risk. The Faraday cage may help, but even then, fuses will require replacement afterwards.

Even if your solar panels do manage to survive any future EMP attack or solar flare, your other circuit-based technologies around the home will almost certainly not survive.

Threats to our modern age come in many varieties of ways, but EMPs and CMEs are almost certainly at the lower end of the threat spectrum, so I can confidently say that investing in a solar panel installation is still an essential way to future-proof your life.

Over the last decade, I have helped many thousands of people decide on a solar future, and I hear people say on a regular basis that they wished they had “installed sooner” as will others over the next decade who want to become less dependent on increasingly expensive traditional energy.

The sun is always your friend with solar panels on your roof.

It’s not a question if you install them, but more a question of when you install them?

"Light is life."

Stuart Lovatt 2013-11-20