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Storm reveals weakness in energy alternatives

Warwick – Those who thought solar energy panels would provide their owners a measure of security in Superstorm Sandy should consider what happened to Bill and Mary Makofske.

Like most current solar photovoltaic systems, the Makofskes’ is attached to the power grid. Thus, when the grid went down, their solar system went down, too. Like many owners of solar panels, the Makofskes had passed on a battery backup system; they felt it was too expensive and impractical.

So the couple fell back on Plan B: a gas-powered generator that ate up about a gallon of fuel per hour. “We did what everybody else did,” Mary Makofske said.

Though Sandy might have revealed a weakness in some current alternative-energy systems, it has hardly suppressed interest in the technology. Rather, the one silver lining of the storm, say sustainability advocates, is that it will likely generate more interest in solar, wind and other clean energy, as well as energy efficiency, as people seek ways to be more secure in future storms.

“Renewable energy fits perfectly with the kinds of weather situations that will come, and will continue to come more rapidly and more extremely,” said Dick Riseling, co-chair of the energy working group for the Mid-Hudson Regional Sustainability Planning Consortium.

A key to the change, say industry experts, will be the development of more powerful and smaller batteries that can work together with the alternative energy sources. Ideally, such technologies would provide a closed-loop, in which the renewable energy would charge the batteries, which then provide sufficient power to run a home or building when the sun, wind or other clean-energy source remains offline.

Research and development in battery technology has already advanced rapidly, just as the cost of solar panels has dropped significantly, said John Wright, co-owner and vice president of Hudson Solar in Rhinebeck.

“It’s only going to be a matter of time when a cost-effective and reliable backup system is available,” he said.

In the meantime, one could invest in energy efficiency upgrades, such as better insulation and home sealing, industry proponents say. Financing programs such as Home Performance with Energy Star allows the cost of some such upgrades to be paid off on one’s utility bill or property taxes for next to nothing, with energy savings reducing or offsetting the cost.

“There’s no sense going to these exotic systems like solar thermal or solar electric, when your house leaks (energy),” Riseling said.