Will Solar Panels Survive an EMP?

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When in comes to all things solar, I am a novice.  I have a very basic set-up from Harbor Freight that is used for light duty power in my garage but other than that, I have a long way to go.  So when I was asked the question, “Will solar panels survive an EMP?” I was stumped.

First of all, no one really knows what will or will not survive a massive EMP such as the type in the hugely popular book, One Second After.  Second, and more to the point, I am not well versed on the technical side of electronics even though I am a techy nerdy type when in comes to computers.

will solar panels survive an EMP

Faced with a good question and no answer, I turned to my long time friend, George Ure, who I have known since 1971.  George writes a popular news and economics column at UrbanSurvival.com is also the author of Peoplenomics.  He is an absolute whiz at this stuff so I turned the question over to him.

George Ure Answers the Question:  Will Solar Panels Survive an EMP?

The answer to EMP protection is fairly complex, as you might imagine.

EMP is a pulse of energy created by an atomic or chemical blast under highly specialized conditions.  The easiest way to create it is to set off a fairly high yield atomic blast above the Earth’s atmosphere.  Gamma radiation, upon striking the upper atmosphere, sets off the pulse which is about one-third the length (or smaller) than the duration of a lightning strike.

In the analysis of EMP damage, one needs to look not only at the device itself (the solar panel) but you also need to take into account the peripheral equipment and wiring.  A solar panel itself may be inherently resistant to EMP to some extent.  But, if damage occurs, it is likely due to the wires between the solar panel and (most often) the solar charge controller.

Another way of looking at it is to pretend that the system you are trying to protect is a complex network of components that might (in simplest form) look like this:

Will Solar Panels Survive an EMP

I’ve drawn three transparent areas to represent the three “antennas” that are commonly created by this kind of installation:

· Upper left:  Solar panel to battery including the wire run from the panels, DC disconnect switch, wiring to the charger controller.

· Right: Wiring from the charge controller to the battery.

· Lower left: From the battery to the inverters (which turns the DC into useful AC power) and the inverter output wiring.

I have a fairly extensive grid-interactive system so I’ve installed multiple layers of protection.  On the panel side I have transient voltage suppressors (TVSs) from the panels to ground.  Next there is a network of TVS (actually 5 discrete devices wired in parallel across the battery bank) and then a serious (4,000 joule) line surge device on the inverter’s AC side.

Now, as to what’s going to “give” first (in the event of an actual emergency, eh?) that becomes anyone’s guess. What I can tell you is that lightning plays havoc (and is a very likely enemy of any off-grid installation, particularly in the South during spring tornado and thunderstorms).

About a year ago we had a serious lightning strike about 500-feet from our solar panels.  The panels did just fine.  What blew out was the AC grid-interactive control circuitry which is how I spent $1,200 to learn that my fancy inverter-chargers, while great in general (Outback power  GTFX 2524’s stacked) they were no match for a surge of many hundreds of volts coming directly over from our neighbor’s house which takes off from the same power pole transformer.

You talk about turning ol’ George into a True Believer in the best surge protection you can afford!  Making a major commitment to solar and keeping it online during [whatever] involves a number of subtle design attributes and your readers are wise to think of these up front.

If you’re looking at a couple of discrete panels and a small $200-class inverter and a few car batteries?  Simply keep the charge controller in your metal (Faraday cage) garbage can and short the solar panel leads (not in bright sun, of course!) and don’t worry.

The Final Word

As I said at the onset, no one really knows what will happen if there is a catastrophic EMP.  George’s answer is to get the best surge protection possible and don’t worry.  Actually, when you think about it, if a huge EMP was going to take down the grid, we would have a lot more to worry about than our home-based solar setup.

Just thinking about it makes me want to eat chocolate.

Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!
Gaye

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Comments

Will Solar Panels Survive an EMP? — 29 Comments

  1. “Other satellites that failed (Transit 4B, TRAAC, Ariel, OSO-1, Anna-IB) did so as a result of a drastic loss of output power from critical solar arrays caused by high energy electrons from STARFISH PRIME [Fischell, 1963].”

  2. Could you tell us the specifics on your TVS and line surge devices? My understanding was that EMP hit too fast for most lightning protection devices and commercially available surge suppressors. The jolt did its damage before the protection circuits could react. Not that we should ignore lightning protection, I’m just not sure it protects us from EMP. My plan is to have a backup solar system stored in a faraday cage in case.

    • I agree Karl. It may be good to keep a couple of blocking diodes in the cage too. Along with a voltmeter. Many solar arrays have a blocking diode and it may blow, then by replacing the diode you have a fully functioning solar array.
      I too have heard that lightening protectors will probably not protect against the rapid EMP pulse. Best protection is what you are doing, keep a spare in a faraday cage. Just remember to give it a few weeks after an EMP before you drag out the spare, they just may hit with a second EMP to make sure!

    • The typical faraday cage of copper screen will not protect against a high gigahertz HEMP. The issue is the mesh size. Current Mil-spec is total metal enclosures w/low ohm grounding. NO gaps…usually in corners or penetrations of outside components. Most can not afford to build. Best is to forget trying to live with current modern techniques and prepare to survive as if you were in the year <1800's.

  3. But what surge protectors are really good? Most are really too slow in reaction time to do any good. Some of the older ones used on telephone lines, particularly the real old ones with the spark gap between 2 graphite blocks seemed really effective. The newer solid state ones are really too slow to react?

    • But what surge protectors are really good? Most are really too slow in reaction time to do any good. Some of the older ones used on telephone lines, particularly the real old ones with the spark gap between 2 graphite blocks seemed really effective. The newer solid state ones are really too slow to react?

    • I have read about some that the military have that are designed for EMP surges. But, unless you have access to a military budget you probably cannot buy them. Hence the widespread use of Faraday cages by preppers.

      • Cable Innovations makes surge protectors that are much faster than gas tube, mov, fuse type surge protectors. They use a patented solid state device called a Sidactor. This “may” be an answer. I have used them around my house for years and have never had a power surge problem.

  4. It’s a really good question. When I was writing After the Blackout I researched it and found it’s hard to get a straight answer. One thing I learned is if there is no current running through the system at the time of the blast, you’re probably OK, but otherwise it depends on how long the wires are and how much shielding you have.
    There has been more research done on vehicles. The Army wanted to know if their tanks would survive an EMP. A good article can be found at http://www.futurescience.com/emp/vehicles.html?utm_source=BD+News+Flash&utm_campaign=beac45994b-RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_8dab905704-beac45994b-325098765.

  5. I’ve had a HF set on my house since Nov,2008 still working just fine. But I also have some others doing other battery groups -they are powering 14 lights in my House,

  6. 1. ALL unsheilded conductive materials will be affected by EMP. That includes solar panel substrates. So they are not “inherently resistant to EMP” (Of course, George only said they “might be”).
    2. Chemical explosions do not produce gamma rays.
    3. EMPs are caused by conductive plasmas moving rapidly through a magnetic field.
    4. Electrical equipment including solar panels can be protected by “Faraday cage” type shielding.
    5. There are transparent conductive coatings.
    6. Conductors unshielded otherwise (such as wiring) can be somewhat self shielded by forming into twisted pairs.
    I think that George or anyone looked to as an “authorative source” should, when asked something outside their expertise, either do their homework (research) or admit they don’t know. We all have to face uncertainty sometimes, and an objective person doesn’t hesitate to say “I don’t know” on these occasions.

    • Are you sure that solar panel arrays can be protected from an EMP with transparent conductive coatings ?
      I would really like to know how this can be verified as I am looking into purchasing my panels soon and really want to get to the bottom of this first.

      • I asked George Ure to respond. Here is what he said:

        Inherently, solar panels are reasonably resistant to EMP. However, like all devices, it all depends on the lengths of wire that are connected to them. Most of the energy from EMP is in the frequency range of 100 KHz to 10 MHz.

        As a ham, you know that 468/frequency in MHz will give you the length of a half wavelength antenna.

        Using this, we can see that most solar panels (which are close to equipment) will be under the 1/2 wavelength. Call it 46.8 feet, right? A full one wavelength antenna would be just under a hundred feet. Down at powerline frequencies, the surge protectors get super important in EMP – though cars seem to be somewhat reliable. Still, TVS diodes (transient voltage suppressors) are a fine thing to install.

        Even so, a person who puts in solar panels is still likely well-advised to install transient surge protection.

        Such devices may be had from http://www.mouser.com for a couple of bucks and are available in a wide range of voltages. A person might select a 16 V or 18V transient protect for a 12V (nominal) system because when charging, that system (using advancad regulation) might go as high at 15.5 volts in winter. (*Battery banks are charged to higher voltages in winter because the speed of battery chemistry slows down in winter, becoming really fast in summer…which is why batteries often gas and explode in summer, but that’s another story…).

        Further note: Advanced regulation is when charging is managed according to time, current, and temperature.

        On your Subaru alternator, the voltage for the regulator is set by a series of three windings that drive the “diode trio” and this setsd most cars around 13.8 volts.

        In advanced regulation, the alternator runs flat out until what’s called “charging voltage” is reached – usually in the range of 14.21 to 14.4 volts in a 12 volt system. The third stage is when it drops back to float voltage, which is around 13-13.2 volts – where the battery is essentially full and everything needed for the b oat or RV is coming from the alternator when running…

        At Uretopia, we use 5 TVS diodes on each 10-panel array, and these are placed at the advanced battery charge controllers…which in my case at Outback FlexMax-60’s. These go for $550 a whack, so spending $10 bucks on transients makes fine sense. Especially since we get the equivalent of EMP several times a year when lightning storms roll through here in the fall and spring.

        Fwiw

        (controller is http://amzn.to/1DsQcA4)

        Hope this information is helpful – Gaye

        • Solar panels like all semiconductor devices are not protected against EMP, check the solar event in the 1800s, telegraph wires were melted, fires were started, anything a quarter inch long or longer will be a good antenna for an EMP Burst, so even if the solar cells themselves were not damaged, the leads to each cell will probably be destroyed. The energy level is such that most of the proposed “faraday cages” will not work, best a metal ammo box, with aluminum tape around all edges, three or four layers, is best. anything less, and you maybe wasting your time. PS I helped design the EMP hardening for the military aircraft. We hope it is good enough, can’t be sure until the real thing happens, tests say it will work, but the energy level of the tests are not nearly as high as the real thing.

        • The E3 wave produces current in any lengthy conductor, which acts like an antenna. Power lines go great distances in nearly straight lines and would thus collect great amounts of power even many hundreds of miles away from ground zero. This is why you need protection against nano-second surges from power lines.

          But the E1 wave (which comes first and is very intense for a very short duration) can even destroy semiconductors which are not connected to a wire. It would be less powerful the farther you are from ground zero, so even minimal protection (enclosing in screening) might save your solar cells. Solar cells are not a miniaturized as computer chips and thus are not as susceptible to E1.

  7. apparently most items won’t make it IF it happens, based on what I read about faraday cages your best bet is to keep spare electric items in a self made faraday cage, put inside of another bigger faraday cage where multiple layers is helpful. You can build faraday cages using large coils of commercial tin foil, cardboard. You must have tightly sealed containers, an old microwave qualifies where a loose fitting garbage can, lid doesn’t… DO NOT attempt to ground the homemade faraday cages unless you are certified to do so. You can turn a seldom used room or attic space into a faraday cage, build faraday cages within it….

    • Yes. And there are even semi-transparent conductors that can allow some visibility outside. Turns out that the connected sides/edges of a Faraday cage are the most critical issue. A very small gap along a seam acts like an antenna.

  8. We are seriously considering buying a solar battery and panels to run a small refrigerator in case we go off grid. Our grandson is a Type 1 Diabetic and it is necessary to keep his insulin and other meds in a refrigerator. We are concerned that a solar battery and panels will not work in case of an EMP. Do you have any other suggestions? We are beginning to feel desperate.

  9. I hear nobody talk about the difference between a surge from a solar flare (coronal mass ejection) and the surge from an EMP (nuclear blast above the atmosphere).
    The solar flare surge comes at your equipment through the powerlines and is a relatively slow transient. So a surgeprotector might protect against that.
    The nuclear EMP comes through the sky from above and hits the innerparts of your equipment, against which a surgeprotector is of no help. Then you need military grade equipment, which can withstand an EMP or good electrical shielding (a closed metal box, with no openings).

    • Nuclear EMP comes “from the sky”, but not necessarily “from above”, depending on where you are located compared to where the nuclear device is located. The wave travels in a straight line, so it does not go beyond the horizon, through mountains, or turn corners. In other words, “line of sight” from the bomb to where you are.

      • The EMP does not come “line of sight” from the location of the nuclear explosion.
        What happens is that the radiation from the nuclear explosion goes in “line of sight”. Then where-ever it hits the atmosphere it induces a burst of electric particles (almost at the same time for the whole area hit by the radiation of the nuclear explosion). Which results in a pulse of electric field that goes straight down for the largest part of the area hit by the radiation. Only at the edge of this area it will flare out to go in different directions.

        • True, the EMP does not come directly from the nuclear explosion, but rather from the radiation’s stripping of electrons from the nearby atmosphere. But the distance of that strong radiation effect is very limited (tens of miles) compared to the reach of the EMP (many hundreds of miles). The large volume of positively charged atoms is a huge single block of contiguous space, close by and centered at the point of explosion. It attracts electrons from adjacent space. It is the movement of electrons, as you state, that creates the EMP.

          The entire EMP phenomenon centers around the point of the explosion and creates (to go into further detail) three separate (uniquely different) single waves that each travel in a straight line from the space immediately around the explosion.

          So if the explosion is 200 miles above the earth in the mid-West, then those within a few hundred miles will experience it coming from above. But those 1000 miles away will be hit with EMP waves traveling almost parallel to the earth’s surface.

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