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Researchers finding ways to keep solar from shattering in storms

RICHBURG, S.C. — After an active hail season this past spring, you may have seen images of shattered solar panels on rooftops and in fields, destroyed in storms from Texas to Rock Hill.

Researchers with the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety say it happens, but it’s less common than you might think. And with new research, they’re hoping to find better ways to help panels weather severe storms.

Jake Sorber recently returned from a field research trip to the Midwest. He said IBHS is constantly working to understand what hail can do and the damage it leaves behind.

“The building materials that we use are unfortunately very vulnerable to hail,” he said.

From the field, those findings come back to the hail lab, where researchers recreate scientific hail to simulate storms. They pit roofing materials, siding and now solar panels against the hailstones.

Sorber said solar panels are required to withstand the impact of hailstones 2 inches or smaller, and from the lab’s research, that seems to be the case.

“They actually stand up pretty well against that standard,” he said. “That’s more than you can say for a lot of building materials like asphalt shingles.”

Anything bigger than that though, Sorber said that’s when panels start to crack. April’s storm in Rock Hill saw 2.25-inch hail, which damaged several rooftop panels. But damage isn’t always a given.

“Some solar panels were damaged. Some solar panels right next to those panels were not,” Sorber said.

That’s because the size of hailstones can vary in a single storm and don’t always make perfect 90 degree direct hit impacts like they do in the hail lab.

In a utility scale solar farm, technology can rotate panels to follow the direction of the sun, maximizing the amount of power they can produce. That same technology can also be used to prevent direct hail hits, though Sorber said wind is another factor to consider.

“Not all hailstones fall in the same direction,” he said. “One thing we’re doing here at IBHS is developing a wind-driven hail sensor to actually detect the angle of impact of these hailstones to better understand, OK, how do we more accurately test things.”

Sorber hopes with that research they can develop more resiliency solutions for utility developments. For rooftop solar, however, there’s not much you can do to prevent damage from massive hail. Cracked panels can still function but damage weakens their efficiency.

Another thing to consider is that while damage on panels is often very visible, cracked panels are likely not the only damage to your roof. It’s likely a sign the entire roof took a beating and there could be worse damage elsewhere.

Solar panels are covered in most homeowner’s insurance policies, but before making the investment, it’s recommended you check with your insurer to see if you need a separate policy or adjust your rates.

According to IBHS, storms like the one we saw in Rock Hill happen roughly once every four years in Charlotte area.

(WATCH BELOW: NC recycling facility ramps up to become a hub for solar panels)

Michelle Alfini

Michelle Alfini, wsoctv.com

Michelle is a climate reporter for Channel 9.

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