Will Solar Panels Survive an EMP?

Avatar for Gaye Levy Gaye Levy  |  Updated: December 16, 2020
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!

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Spotlight:  11 Steps to Living a Strategic Life: This little book will provide you with the motivation to get started or stay on track with a self-reliant life. 11 Steps to Living a Strategic Life, co-authored with my long time pal, George Ure (www.urbansurvival.com), and can purchased from Amazon.

Bargain Bin: Getting the goods you need to in place to be comfortable during a power outage when the grid is down can be daunting when you are just getting started. Always, start with food then branch out from there.  Here is a list of some gear to help you along the way.

One Second After:  For many, the novel “One Second After” was a game changer that convinced them of the need to be prepared.  If you have not read this book, you really should.

Ambient Weather Emergency Solar Hand Crank Radio: This is becoming a popular choice with Backdoor Survival readers. This unit is a Digital AM/FM NOAA Weather Alert Radio and a powerful 3 LED flashlight, with smart charger, all in one portable package.

AA and AAA Solar Battery Charger: Another popular item. This unit will charge up to 2 pairs of AA or 1 pair of AAA batteries via USB or solar power.

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.

EcoZoom Versa Rocket Stove: Burning twigs and pinecones, this stove will cook a big pot of rice in under 20 minutes. The stove is solidly built and will burn charcoal as well. There is also a version that only burns biomass for slightly less money.

Coleman Rugged Battery Powered Lantern: This sturdy Coleman has a runtime of up to 28 hours on the low setting and 18 hours on the high setting but does require D cell batteries. Personally, I have both a battery operated and propane lantern. Of course by now you know that I like redundancy with my preps.

Dorcy LED Wireless Motion Sensor Flood Lite: Don’t let the price lead you to think this wireless flood light is wimpy. I have two of these (so far) and feel that these lights are worth double the price.

Chemical Lighting aka Light Sticks: These are inexpensive, portable and easy to use. These come in a number of colors so take your pick.

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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?

    • 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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..

  7. 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.

  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.

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