(image credit Melanie Conner/Getty)
By BRIAN EASON - The Asbury Park Press
ASBURY PARK, N.J. -- The thousands of solar-powered New Jersey homeowners have spent the last week at the mercy of the power grid, just like everyone else.
"I've been asked that all week long," says Jeff Lega, whose home in Brick is covered in rooftop solar panels. '"Why don't you have power?'"
Understanding the answer requires an understanding of how residential solar panels function. On a sunny day, rooftop panels can produce more electricity than is needed to power a home. But with no way to store it, the excess juice is sent back to the power grid for consumption elsewhere.
During outages, solar panels connected to the grid cut off automatically so they can't send a wave of electricity through while a utility worker is doing power line repairs. It's a necessary safety precaution, but for the last week or so it has left in the dark people who have a free supply of electricity right over their heads.
"People are like, 'You've got solar, what's the big deal?'" Tom Rogers, of Wall Township said. "No, no. You don't get it. Solar has nothing to do with generating electricity for your house -- it's about selling it back to the power company."
Solar distributors say there's a way -- a battery backup system that can store excess power, rather than sending it back to the utility. But the price is so high ($8,000, on average), many don't even consider it.
Brian Kelly, president of Sea Bright Solar in Ocean, said fewer than 10 percent of his customers opt for such a setup. And the backup is unlikely to power the whole house.
"As long as the customer has reasonable expectations of what they want to power in multiday power outages, in the past, we've gotten positive feedback," Kelly said.
Lacking such a system, Lega bought a gas generator for $799. "It's done the job for us. The power for us was really just so we could watch TV and find out what's happening."
There was some good news for solar homeowners. Even in neighborhoods littered with downed trees and other debris, pieces of their solar panels were not among them.
"As far as we know, to this point all of our installations have weathered the storm, as they should have," said Barrett Peck, vice president of sales at Green Apple Energy USA. "They're warranted and they're designed to withstand up to 140 mph winds."