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Backup support from solar provided power in Sandy's aftermath

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While many New Jersey businesses discovered too late that their emergency power sources were no match for the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, one school in Bayonne was able to keep its generators running all week long with solar technology designed to operate in conjunction with diesel fuel during a power failure.

"Solar panels are limited by how much sunlight they take in and the size of the array, just as a generator is limited by the amount of fuel you feed it and the size of it. Either backup system might run out of power at any point, but having the two together is a much safer bet than having just one," said Lyle Rawlings, president of Flemington-based Advanced Solar Products, which co-developed the solar electric inverter equipment with California-based solar technology manufacturer SMA America LLC.

"In the case of Hurricane Sandy, a lot of companies were limited by how much diesel fuel they could get delivered, but Midtown Community School significantly cut the amount of diesel it needed to keep the lights on by using our inverter system, which ended up saving them a lot of money and hassle."

While traditional systems that convert direct current, or DC power, from solar panels into alternating current, or AC power, for buildings' utilities are required to shut down during emergencies — due to safety concerns for utility workers attempting to restore power lines — Rawlings said ASP enhanced the system to allow it to enter a backup support mode, which "senses when the power is off and when the generator has started up, so it's only providing power to the generator, not the building itself."

Rawlings said ASP completed the first commercial-scale installation of its inverter technology at Midtown Community School in 2004, but the school didn't make use of the system until the superstorm.

However, in the wake of that storm, Rawlings said his company has been "getting a lot of interest from people all over the place in cogeneration as an emergency power source —especially hospitals that had talked about our system before, but now have a renewed interest in it."

But while the hurricane has prompted hospitals with failed backup generators to consider solar energy as an emergency power option, Kerry McKean Kelly, vice president of communications for the New Jersey Hospital Association, said "it's all a matter of competing priorities for capital dollars."

"Right now, hospitals also have to worry about building more efficient facilities and implementing electronic medical records, which is a must-have under health care reform," she said. "I think something like solar power for generators is a good idea for hospitals, but it's being added to a long list of others."

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