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EMP threats and photovoltaic solar panels?

I first fell in love with PV solar technology in 2004. I’ve been answering questions from pioneering adopters and thought I’d heard them all. That was until I was asked, “If an electromagnetic pulse will affect my solar panels?”

I will attempt to answer this most unusual of questions. Upon further inquiry, I discovered this question came from current peak solar activity and more than unusual solar flare activity – ejected by the sun.

If super-massive coronal mass ejections (CMEs) were to direct hit the Earth, then this would bathe the planet and solar panels with electromagnetic waves! The question was valid, and so I set out to investigate the answer to this.

There’s 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 rumors!

There’s good news and bad news. The least likely occurring threat to solar panel technology could be a solar mass ejection hit, but likely to disrupt traditional power lines.

This is why putting critical infrastructure onto internet land is crazy!

The most famously known CME to hit the earth happened in 1859 and disrupted the telegraph system of that 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 during those times.

The cause of the damage comes from a surge in power to exposed lines and transformers when the unusually high volumes of solar particles charged the network. Therefore, if a CME were to hit PV solar panels, then the inverter that’s load-protected and fused would shut down automatically. If your inverter was specified correctly, then your inverter will be over-specified 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 external power network is affected by outages, like those experienced by Quebec in Canada in 1989, then your photovoltaic system will automatically shut down to protect itself.

Once power company engineers have completed repairs, then it should automatically start up again.

For owners of solar heating panels and evacuated tubes then the same is true with the 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.

Impressively, satellite technology encompassing PV solar panels has been circulating our planet since the 1950s. These endure varying amounts of solar weather and most are still operational today.

I suggest these prove that you’ve nothing to worry about, but everything to gain when installing. A threat to your solar panels could be an electromagnetic pulse, but very unlikely. Returning to the original question, a small electromagnetic pulse occur naturally via a lightning strikes.

Like the lottery jackpot, you’ve got a minimal chance of coming across one. This issue brings us to human-made EMPs by modern weaponry. In the event, the affected area will see most forms of modern and delicate electronics damaged.

An EMP strike works by reverse magnetised and overheating nearby electrical systems.

In other words, your iPhone will be toasted! Solar panels are vulnerable to the EMP effect, but the real dangers are not from a direct strike, but from the indirect effects. The only way to protect your system is to incase the inverter inside a Faraday Cage, but protecting yourself from the indirect effects would be much harder.

Your photovoltaic solar panels should be OK, but your definite inverter is the one at risk!

The Faraday cage may help, but even then, fuses will require replacement. Even if your solar panels do manage to survive any future EMP attack or solar flare, other circuit-based technologies around the home will almost certainly not survive!

Threats to our modern age come in many varieties of ways. EMPs and CMEs are almost certainly at the lower end of the threat spectrum.

I can confidently say that investing in a PV solar panel system is still an essential way to future-proof. Over the last two decades, I’ve helped many thousands of people decide on a solar-paneled future, and I hear people say, “they wished they had installed sooner.” It’s all about becoming less dependent on increasingly expensive traditional energy.

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

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Ralph Tucker
18/01/2018 23:07

What about a gps system controlling the axis? Does it have a mode that doesn’t rely on an external gps system?

Kyle Hill
16/01/2018 21:58

Look up “One Second After” to have an idea of a real EMP threat based off of Black Mountain North Carolina. It’s based off of real studies and very well written about the town surviving when everything goes to hell and not too long ago a sequel was made.

All it takes is 3 medium yield EMP’s or 2 large ones over the east coast and Rockies to take out the entire USA grid,southern Canada and northern Mexico.

Barney Quinn
09/09/2016 07:25
Reply to  Tor

Thank you for one of the most accurate comments I’ve seen on the EMP issue. All of your assessments are correct. I’m a CATV engineer (Cablevision) and electromagnetic fields, irrespective of how they are generated, are essentially RF energy that generates currents in conductors those fields intercept. Conductors are essentially antennas. Their orientation, length, composition, affect how much voltage will be generated by a passing magnetic pulse.

Arthur Bradley
27/05/2016 16:13
Reply to  Tor

Great comments. People often misunderstand the effects of solar electromagnetic events from those of a high-altitude nuclear-generated EMP. Solar events are primarily a threat to very long conductors (i.e., our electrical grid), whereas a nuclear-generated EMP would have some very high-frequency (short duration) components that could indeed damage very small-scale electronics. The other comment I would add regarding solar arrays is that while the PV cells themselves are low-impedance devices designed for high currents, the bypass and blocking diodes are not as robust. Their failures introduce different effects, from lower efficiency, to complete system failure, depending on the type of failure (open or short). Of course, the charge control circuitry is also susceptible. P.S. I am also an EE (PhD), working for NASA.

05/02/2016 04:28
Reply to  Tor

Just disconnect your solar panels from your inverter at night…they are not being used anyway…the problem is delicate electronics in your solar converter and inverter and your battery bank.

David Cottrell
31/12/2015 18:48
Reply to  Tor

I am no engineer, but it is also my understanding that many vehicles would not be affected due to the fact that they are not grounded and are in a big metal box. Again, I am not sure the relative aperture of a solar system (off-grid). But given that the inverter, charge controller and such are wired into the solar array, wouldn’t the solar array act as an antennae sending the pulse along he wiring to the electronics connected to it? “Faraday cage” or not, if they are wired to an antennae, they would get smoked, right? I have actually had the experience of an indirect lightening strike creating a pulse and frying upstream systems and some of the downstream panels (the newer ones with more sensitive electronics). This kind of thing jumps right over fuses (many were untripped and in tact) and smokes everything. How similar is that to an EMP?

11/11/2015 13:10
Reply to  Tor

Ummm Okay wow a lot of information but want to make sure what you are saying… Are you saying that the solar panels will be affected and if so what can we do to protect them. If you are saying that they will not how can that be since they are just sitting out there for the emp to target.

19/09/2015 21:30
Reply to  NTC

I agree with what you are saying. The point of my original comment was to call out the nonsense being perpetrated about “reverse magnetization” and to point out that not every electronic circuit will succumb to the EMP as most are let to believe. The E1 pulse generated by Compton electrons interacting with the Earth’s magnetosphere is the greatest threat and most difficult to counter in that it comes without warning (unlike a coronal mass ejection from the Sun), and is so intense while being so brief. None the less, items of small aperture will likely survive with minimum or no shielding (watches, etc.).

Al Olmstead
19/04/2015 17:33
Reply to  Tor

I am totally off grid but have a 5′ long pure copper stake driven down into my back yard. Will I eliminate both of these dangers by having the entire system (panels, charge controllers and inverter) inside a ferous mesh, such as heavier poultry fencing, and then grounded to my copper stake?

31/01/2015 17:51

Correct! If you had advance notice of a potential EMP attack, you could disconnect from the grid (if your system works part time on/off the grid), or just be totally grid-independent.

27/01/2015 02:30
Reply to  Tor

Which may be blocked by a capacitance grounding system, correct?

20/12/2014 20:06
Reply to  Tor

Then an off-grid solar system would pose fewer risks from and EMP?

30/10/2014 20:00

I am an electrical engineer and faculty member at a major university… and “An EMP strike works by reverse magnetising and overheating nearby electrical systems” makes no sense. First, EMP is a momentary increase in electromagnetic field strength that can induce over-voltage conditions in sensitive circuits which cause either momentary errors (such as forcing the reset of a microprocessor), or causing breakdown of semiconductors (such as in the front end of sensitive receivers)… nothing is “reverse magnetized”. There is a lot of hype and misunderstanding about EMP effects and fictional sources like “One Second After” are not at all a source of valid information. Solar systems (PV arrays and associated electronics) are fortunately relatively “low impedance” circuits that may not be adversely effected by an EMP blast depending primarily upon distance from the blast. The reason that CME and EMP can disrupt grid power systems is that the grid is like a large antenna which collects energy over a large area and can therefore concentrate large currents within the network. People who talk about watches stopping due to EMP, etc., don’t understand that the aperture size of smaller objects (i.e., their ability to collect electromagnetic energy like an antenna) is insufficient to cause damage. Also, watches, cars, and even your solar inverters are usually encased in metal (a Faraday cage) which will limit the induced over voltage from an EMP. The greatest threat from an EMP (unless its right over top of you, and then you have other more serious issues to deal with) is current surges coming into your system from the grid.

26/10/2014 09:47

I too am facinated by how fragile all this around actually is. A man-made EMP attack will likely be a high conurbation area like London, and although this would affect people living ‘down south’, more northern/Scottish areas could be less affected like Canada after the Quebec incident in 1989.

My point is, a country which is “solar panelled up to the max” would be in a much better position to weather such an attack than a country without a mix of power generation.

But yes, if it actually happens, or if the sun sneezes in our direction, then its gonna get messy.

26/10/2014 01:43

I recommend you read “One Second After” by William Forstchen. As NK and Iran become nuclear and missile capable, an EMP attack is the most potent asymmetric weapon they could ever hope for. Your dismissive answer reveals a lack of knowledge.

New world savvy.

"I've witnessed many fantastic changes, innovations, and installation companies come and go. My fellowship with ethically-minded MCS solar panel installers goes back decades. Today, I offer my experience to ensure you gain real independence from this crazy geopolitical world."

Stuart Lovatt
Power My Home Solar Panels
Sundial House, 44 Panton Road, Chester CH2 3HX.
01244 722 607

Est. 2004.