Will Solar Panels Survive an EMP?

Gaye Levy Gaye Levy  |  Updated: December 16, 2020
Will Solar Panels Survive an EMP?

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!

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Tripp Lite Surge Protectors : You do not want to fry your electronics when there is a power surge.  I have always felt that Trip Lite were the best surge protectors and even their most basic power strips are good. My guess is that I have 8 or 9 of these Tripp Lite SUPER7 Surge Protector Strips scattered throughout the house.

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47 Responses to “Will Solar Panels Survive an EMP?”

  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.

    • Hi Sheila,

      It’s always good to have spares for critical items….they do drop dead on their own, as you have observed. My contacts who have dealt with EMP for the US government have advised me on simple steps we can take to mitigate the problem short of high-tech components. I am always looking for credible solutions, and still trying to locate effective surge suppressors for the E1 and E2 phases of the pulse. I can send pics of the shielding I used on my panel wiring to prevent signal coupling. Perfection is not the goal…”very good” will likely get the job done.
      In any event, I just picked up 19 Canadian Solar, 320 watt panels for around .55 cents per watt for spares.
      It would be so helpful if our government would disseminate accurate information to the peon class so that we would have a common direction to go in making our preparations instead of each and every one of us blundering in the dark to find our own way.
      I do not claim any professional level of expertise in this arena, but rely on my friends for professional advice. Still, it’s annoying to have to go to so much trouble to find the way forward.

    • The idea is to get rid of as many of the us Peons as they can. As the Obama administration said, and I quote ” It is easier to kill millions than try to control them.” Then he Obama for the first time in US history enacted the Jade Helm 15 training to inforce Martial Law. Go figure.

  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 //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.


      (controller is https://www.amazon.com/Outback-Power-FM-60-Charge-Controller/dp/B004TO3CZ8/

      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.

    • This is very helpful indeed.

      I do however have a question about this:

      “Such devices may be had from //www.mouser.com for a couple of bucks and are available in a wide range of voltages.”

      Since Mouser.com’s 5,000 product descriptions in their TVS Diodes section is essentially gibberish to anyone without a bachelor’s equivalent in electrical engineering, do you think George could possibly let us know which exact models he has in mind? Then I could use the mysterious variables on those models as a basis to get an analogous model suited to my own voltage needs.

      Without guidance, I see no way for me to find TVS diodes with any conception of whether they even *might* work.

      Thanks so much!

    • I know this is a late send, but I came across this article and saw your response. I am off-grid, and have steel underground shelters. My PVs are mounted on a steel pipe mast, the conductors mostly tucked inside the mast and routed through steel flex (two layers of shielding. My late friend, Bronius Cikotas, was an infrastructure vulnerability consultant and also ran the technical section for the EMP Commission. Bron says PVs are pretty immune to EMP based on his simulator testing. As long as you are NOT connected to the grid (best antenna in the world), and if your conductors are shielded, you shouldn’t harvest much in the way of energy. Figure 47 volts per linear foot of exposed conductor, worst case. Transorbs clamp in less than a nanosecond, far superior to MOVs (800 ns) Charge controller and inverter are ensconced inside a 12 gauge steel shelter, buried ten feet deep. NOTHING in the way of RF has any chance of getting in there. Bron also tested hand-held radios on simulator, and most worked fine. It’s the size of the antenna, or the conductors inside the unit acting as an antenna that determines vulnerability, all things being equal. Also, he threw a lot of hand-held gear into a file cabinet, and zapped that. All worked fine in spite of the huge gaps in the drawers. I’m sure if you connected any of these to a huge antenna, all bets are off. Even steel buildings (arched barns) offer some degree of protection, far better than an ordinary house. When I walk into my barn, cell and radio traffic DIE. So, I think the jury is out on PV vulnerability until THAT DAY. Your thoughts?


  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.

  10. lower everything in a faraday cage underground also make sure you have a working valve radio. Do really want to survive a nuclear strike?
    you might last 3 weeks unless you have a nuclear bunker, A nuclear war will not have ground bursts so the invaders can walk in when the radiation moves on all they will have to is bury the bodies and shoot the dying. Then take over the country do repairs as they go.
    The trouble is we have a deterrent that will give the invader a bloody nose if they have ago at the West. Don’t trust you neighbouring country to support you they might have caved in to the threats..

  11. This is a great question and great set of responses. EMP is created as said for a nuclear device but more basically any ionized region that is accelerated creates EMP. This would include the plasma that forms immediately upon detonation and is accelerated due to electromagnetic fields and atmospheric gas expansion from super heated regions (plasmas in this case) in addition to the gamma ray mechanism. But the net is the EMP waves are all wavelengths. The short ones have enough intensity to kill microchips because the conductive channels are so small they easily get damaged. The long wavelengths really, really get picked up by long utility lines and that creates an incredibly intensive emp pulse able to destroy industrial level transformers (building size literally). So anything attached to power lines directly will fry. Unfortunately, probably no power protector can handle that magnitude of incoming electric pulse. Therefore, the only way to save the electronics (power controller) is to be detached from the power line. That’s probably not practical. So you’ll need an extra power controller in you little Faraday cage to make repairs after. The good news is the destruction of the power controller may save the circuits down stream. But you may want one extra of these circuits in your Faraday cage as well. All theoretical stuff and you can decide if you want to follow this or not. Hope this helps someone.

  12. I am surprised not to see any references here to 8x8x10, 20 or 40 foot cargo containers? Would not these offer at least some help? Also, how far under ground, sand, dirt, decomposing granite, or actual granite boulders do you have to go to get shielding? I have an old mine site and plenty of tailings to make a covered cave, and of course a good tractor.to move it all around.

    • Shipping containers, while made of mostly steel, do not offer a very high level of protection because their floors are not sheathed in steel. The floors are wooden, attached to steel ribs for supporting loads. I own a half dozen shipping containers, and have had myself locked inside wth a radio and a cell phone. The RF signals penetrated and my phone continued to operate. At some point, it is possible to put enough earth and stone between you and the signal to get protection. I have not seen published figures on this, but I assume it would be several meters.
      I have a corrugated steel pipe shelter, the hull measuring 10 feet in diameter and 50 feet in length. It is buried under 10 feet of earth in the Utah desert. With the steel hatch open, my cell works just fine at the bottom of the stairs. If I take two steps from the stair, the signals dies hard. If I close the hatch standing near the top, the signal dies. I had to install a cellular repeater antenna on my shelter solar array and run RG6 cable down to the shelter to the pickup unit to get internet and cell coverage down there. The exposed antenna has a very short section of exposed coax, most of it is shielded inside steel pipe. Burying shipping containers is ill-advised. They are NOT designed for burial. Corrugated steel pipe, IS. In any event, the internet, the national communication infrastructure will be toast, so it’s rather a moot point. WATER, food, medical care and security will assume supreme importance. If your electronics survive, but you can’t get safe water, it won’t matter in three days.

    • You cannot generate serous amounts of electricity using exercise bikes. I cycled my way to heaven during cardiac rehab, and I could never generate more than 75 watts, and that was for a half hour. A small solar panel could have easily out-produced my laborious effort.

  13. We have a disconnect switch that has OFF, PGE Generator. If there is a time of high risk, will such a switch offer, in the OFF position, enough protection from a surge coming down the line, or will the pulse jump the gap, about 3 inches, when switch is in mid position, the OFF position?

  14. If your solar power system is isolated from the grid, and your conductors are shielded inside metallic conduit or flex, EMP will not couple to them (very low risk). Any system connected to the grid will likely be destroyed from high voltage flashing over and through components, being harvested BY the grid . EMP can jump 22 inches in dry air, so having a switch or breaker open will not help much. If you desire to isolate a part of your system, I would have the ability to physically remove the connecting line of that system from any component wired to the grid and maintain at least two feet of air gap between the two. Grid-tie solar systems are not going to fair well in such an event. It is impossible to know when the risk of an attack is high since the initiator is not going provide any species of warning.

    Solar panels, standing alone, do not collect enough RF energy from high altitude EMP to seriously harm them. If they are connected to the grid, you can expect about 3,000,000 volts and 40,000 amps at the weather head of your home. With this level of insult, no switch will preclude flashover…it’s going to get through and scorch equipment.

  15. Surge protection is irrelevant. Surge protectors keep surges that originate in an external power grid from transferring to your equipment. That’s great if the EMP happens 200 miles away from you and power grid disturbance is the only symptom you see. But if you yourself are in the effect area of the EMP, it will create surges directly within your equipment, so surge protectors won’t do a thing.

    A good rule of thumb is that anything that would survive two seconds in a microwave oven without being reduced to sparking junk should be relatively immune to EMP. I haven’t done the experiment with solar panels, but my money’s heavily on crash and burn.

    • Lightening protection is not surge protection there are inline devices that will switch of instantly, I mean in nano/milli seconds made by Standex Int for telephone line circuits, bigger versions are used in power lines, the earth side must be well grounded with a ground spike.
      There a devices used in radar transmission systems that stops the pulse damaging the receiver circuits.

    • My money is on solar panels, since they have already been extensively tested to 100,000 volts per square meter. Panels with unshielded connections are degraded, but not killed outright. Panels that are unwired, or have shielded connecting wires are undamaged. I don’t know how much more evidence one needs than that. The EMP Commission also did extensive testing….solar panel performance is well documented. Have spares, shield your conductors. Have spare charge controllers and an inverter. You should have these, anyway, as components fail for a variety of reasons in peace time.

      Or you you can bet on the grid. Good luck with that.

      Or you can do nothing, having found an excuse to lose.

  16. So, we know that vacuum tubes, which operate by boiling off electrons are purported to survive EMP, ( Soviets used vacuum tubes in their fighter jets long after semiconductors were available), but we don’t know how solar panes, essentially semiconductors will be effected, someone knows. Sensitive semiconductors which operate on minute voltages are destroyed by EMPs, making it likely solar panels would be effected.

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