Recently I was trying to determine how my family would survive in a scenario where the power grid went down for a long period of time. After spending many hours figuring out how my home’s solar panels would factor into the equation, it dawned on me; what if the grid was down because of an EMP?
There’s a theory that there are only two things capable of surviving a nuclear blast- cockroaches and the Kardashians. That’s great, but I wanted to know if I would still have my solar system as a source of power after an EMP event. After doing extensive research and talking to some experienced electricians, I had my answer.
Would Solar Panels Survive an EMP Attack?
Depending on the strength of the electromagnetic pulse (EMP,) most solar panels would likely not be affected. However, the larger the solar array is, the more likely that there will be damage to the supporting equipment including the wiring, charge controller, and inverter.
I want to be able to count on my home solar energy system to keep my household going before, during, and after an apocalyptic event. Safeguarding the power supply from an attack, nuclear or otherwise, is paramount to long-term survival. Panels need to remain accessible to the sun for obvious reasons, but the other system components do not.
If it’s possible to protect your solar energy system during an EMP event, how do I do it? And can it be repaired after taking a hit? These are the tricky questions I’ll be tackling today.
What is an EMP?
EMP stands for ‘electromagnetic pulse.’ This is a short burst of electromagnetic energy that can induce currents into electrical devices potentially causing damage to such devices. Common sources of EMPs include lightning strikes, solar flares, and nuclear detonations.
An average person’s experience with EMPs is, thankfully, only via naturally occurring events such as lightning strikes. With those events, most electronics and electrical power grids can be safeguarded by basic surge protection systems. The only exception to this would be a coronal mass ejection (CME), which happens several times a day, but rarely affects us here on earth.
Largest CME event in recorded history to hit us occurred in 1859, and it knocked out the telegraph system around the area of impact. It caused sparks to fall from the telegraph lines, it shocked operators on both ends of the lines and even caused some small fires at the telegraph stations. We’ve had one near miss since that time, in 2012 where CME missed earth by only about a week. The chances of another CME having a large impact on our electrical grids soon is about 12 percent.
CMEs from our sun are rare, they cause mainly localized events, and they don’t leave nuclear fallout. Thermonuclear EMPs on the other hand, are a different story.
The 3 Waves of an EMP
Electromagnetic pulses don’t destroy things physically as an explosion would. They’re pulses of magnetically charged energy that come in three waves that build on each other and cause system overloads. Wiring acts like a conductor that leads them straight to the heart of your circuitry; microchips are especially vulnerable. EMPs from a nuclear blast come in three waves. These waves are referred to as the E1, E2, and E3 waves.
- E1 – The first pulse to strike is an E1 pulse. This is the most destructive force, which is equivalent to a jolt up to about 50,000 volts of electricity. It happens in a sudden burst of gamma radiation within seconds of a thermonuclear blast, saturating the air within its range. I’m talking about a tsunami of energy encircling ground zero within thousands of miles around.
- E2 – An E2 pulse is the second wave after an EMP and is the easiest to protect against. It can be experienced as the power in the average bolt of lightning, which can be withstood with the right protective measures in place. However, it will strike only after the initial blast of energy has hit and your grid is likely already destroyed.
- E3 – This is a slower moving pulse of energy, and last to strike after a nuclear detonation. The E3 electromagnetic pulse creates currents that are induced geomagnetically along extended wiring systems like telephone and power lines. As the charge travels, it fries everything it encounters along the way, including power grids and transformers. Smaller electronics without long transmission lines connected to them will likely survive this third and final wave, although at this point they were probably already destroyed by the previous waves.
EMPs can either be a secondary occurrence in the wake of a nuclear blast or deployed as a primary weapon with the intent of disrupting electrical grids on a massive scale; which is the more likely scenario.
Your Home Solar System After an EMP
There’s usually minimal damage to panels in cases of lightning strikes in very close proximity, say within 500 feet. This happened to us three years ago when a fork of lightning hit near our house during a rainstorm. The panels themselves were just fine; it was the circuitry that’s connected to them that blew. That was an expensive lesson in surge protection (or my lack thereof).
Experiments in thermonuclear response indicate that it would be the same in the case of an EMP attack, although that may be the least of your problems if the EMP was the result of massive, full-scale nuclear war. With enough forewarning, if you’re able to disconnect your panels and protect your components by encasing them in a Faraday cage, you should have little to no damage to your system.
Even a direct hit to the panel only reduces its output by about five percent. However, this also depends on the makeup of the panels. Solar panels don’t have much circuitry, but they do contain diodes that direct the flow of energy from the sun’s rays to the battery. Each panel has two types, bypass and blocking diodes, which act as valves.
Tip: The fewer panels you have, the less chance of losing them during an EMP.
Larger systems that rely on rows of photovoltaic modules to convert energy or panels that contain strings of diodes acting as semiconductors are more susceptible to destruction.
Protecting Solar Panels From an EMP
Your options for protecting your system lie in constructing them to military standards or creating barriers to protect them from EMPs. You should assume that any EMP attack won’t be mild and prepare for the worst-case scenario.
If you’re entirely off the grid, you stand a much better chance of recovery than if you’re connected to the targeted grid of such an attack. The reason for this is that the long electrical transmission lines in the grid will act like a giant antenna and collect the power of the EMP frying anything in its path. If your solar system is hooked to the grid, you basically have your system hooked to this giant antenna which isn’t good when an EMP strikes.
Three Ways You Can Protect Your Solar Panels From an EMP
There are three ways to protect your home solar power setup. Fair warning though, no one option is perfect.
1. Disconnect it.
Oddly enough, the simplest thing you can do to protect your personal electrical grid from an EMP attack is the same thing you would do to your appliances during a thunderstorm: unplug it. Without being directly connected, your panels stand a better chance of surviving an attack, and you can create a metal barrier to prevent damage to other components like the charge controller.
However, this would only work if you had an imminent warning that the attack was coming. Otherwise, it would be wholly inconvenient and impractical to keep disconnecting and reconnecting your panels every time you use them.
2. Create a barrier.
The most common barrier to direct blasts of electricity and electromagnetic waves is to encase them in a Faraday cage. Traditionally, they are made of fine wire mesh, but they can also be solid metal. You can buy them or make one yourself. However, they can be impractical for two reasons:
- Encasing the whole solar unit, cage and all, would keep your panels from receiving enough sunlight to create energy.
- Encasing just the vulnerable components would only work if they aren’t still wired to the panels, leading you back to the impracticality of solution one.
An alternative would be to purchase backups of every component, including extra panels, and protecting them all in a Faraday cage. It’s a good idea to have spare parts anyway, but this can be expensive. Another problem with cages is the mesh, which keeps out direct bolts of electricity but may not stop penetrating rays.
You can solve this by constructing a sheet metal box that’s weld-sealed at the seams, keeping everything in a covered metal garbage can, or using Faraday bags to house individual parts. Make sure to line the interior walls of your barrier with bubble wrap or cardboard to keep the contents from making contact with the metal enclosure.
3. Go commando.
This doesn’t mean what you think it does! The military has created an EMP-proof wiring system that hardens military vehicles and electronic equipment against attacks. You can purchase some separate components that are pre-hardened or DIY. Knowing how to do this requires a little knowledge of how solar energy systems work and where they’re most vulnerable to attacks.
The more complex your system is the more areas that are vulnerable. It only takes one wire being exposed to create a chain reaction that takes everything down. A basic setup that consists of a few panels and a couple of car batteries will be much easier to protect than a complex photovoltaic array that’s big enough to power a compound.
For the purposes of explanation, we’ll use a basic home solar setup (with a battery backup) to demonstrate the concept. The areas that need the most protection are the wires, charge controller, and inverter. Here are the locations of the four most vulnerable points.
- The wire running from the blocking diode of the solar panel through the DC switch to the charger controller.
- The wiring from the charge controller to the battery.
- Wiring from the battery to the inverters.
- The output wiring from the inverter that leads to your house.
These can be reinforced for surge protection by installing transient voltage suppressors (TVSs) that lead from the wiring to the ground and a heavy-duty line surge device that runs from the other side of the inverter to the output. Shoring these areas up is a good insurance policy to prevent or at least minimize the damage from a sudden surge of energy.
You can purchase TVSs and line surge devices at any electronics store that supplies commercial or industrial electronic components. They can also be purchased online from suppliers like PhaseFRee Products or Schneider Electric if you live in an isolated area or far from advanced shopping opportunities. An EMP-hardened inverter might be a little harder to find. Companies like Sol-Ark sell upgrade kits, but not individual inverters.
There are companies that sell pre-hardened solar power systems and components that are based on the military design if you’d rather purchase one that’s already finished. They feature wiring with industrial surge compression pre-installed and EMP-hardened internal components like military-grade inverters. Purchasing one of these systems is the most convenient and cost-effective solution.
You’ll know it’s already built to military specifications to withstand a direct hit, and you won’t have to buy duplicates of all of your components (although I still can’t help but recommend having replacement parts on hand). It also prevents preemptive dismantling or disconnection and worries about total destruction in the event of a surprise blast.
4. Stockpile System Duplicates
A more costly alternative would be to purchase backups of every component, including extra panels, and protecting them all in a Faraday cage. It’s a good idea to have spare parts anyway, but this can be expensive. Another problem with cages is the mesh, which keeps out direct bolts of electricity but may not stop penetrating rays.
You can solve this by constructing a sheet metal box that’s weld-sealed at the seams, keeping everything in a covered metal garbage can, or using Faraday bags to house individual parts. As I mentioned earlier, make sure to line the interior walls of your barrier with bubble wrap or cardboard to keep the contents from making contact with the metal enclosure.
Repairing Your Solar System After an EMP
The amount of damage done and how salvageable your solar system is depends on the strength of the charge, the distance from your location of the attack, and how prepared you were before it hit. You should perform an inspection of the whole system once it’s safe to get near it to see what you can save.
- Check the Diodes: As long as the diodes are intact and haven’t melted, they’re probably operational. You can test them with any good quality multimeter set to diode mode. A decent multimeter is a good piece of equipment to have in your home repair tool kit anyway; you’ll need it to test your controller and inverter, too.Replacing the diodes is pretty simple. Here’s a YouTube video that shows you how. Fried wires are easy enough to swap out. It’s what’s connected to them that could be difficult and expensive to replace.
- Inspect the Wiring and Components: Inspect your main solar power system to check for burnt wires or components. If the wires are burnt, it’s likely that the inverter, controller, and battery are short-circuited also. Just to make sure to replace any burnt wiring between the parts and test each with a multimeter to see if they’re dead. Dip into your bag of spare parts and swap the new ones out with the old.
- Have Spare Parts Ready: You should assume that the internet and your local electronics supply shop aren’t going to be open for business after an attack. This is where your backup parts come in handy. Since panels are relatively inexpensive and easy to obtain, it’s a good idea to have some spares stashed just in case. You can purchase panels, solar cells, and diodes in multi-packs online on Amazon or buy them at a larger home building supply or electrical supply store.
Even if you can only get a basic one-panel, car battery powered mini-station going, it will provide temporary power until you can get the rest of your system fully operational or rebuild it.
What I Choose to Do for my Family
After the hours of research I did on this topic and considering my options, I decided it was pretty impractical for me to store a bunch of spare parts or try to “military harden” my own system from an EMP. I also wasn’t going to spend the money to buy a new, EMP hardened, home solar system.
I decided to get one of these all-in-one solar kits and keep it in a homemade Faraday cage. It’s inside a metal garbage can in my garage that is electrically grounded. The inside of the can is lined with plastic so all the items inside are insulated from the metal can.
For being an all-in-one solution, these all-in-one solar power generators are usually at a fairly reasonable price on Amazon, especially when you consider the alternatives. See the portable solar kit I bought here. For an additional level of protection, I also placed each item inside my trash can inside these inexpensive Faraday bags.
Are You Ready for the Aftermath?
The entire purpose of prepping is to be ready for anything. I don’t know about you, but I want to be one of the remainders left alive to rebuild. I want my family and friends to survive, and that includes you. My family has all systems in place to ride out whatever comes, and our bug out bags are ready to get out of Dodge on a moment’s notice if it comes to that.
Do you agree with the points covered here? Tell me what you’re doing to protect your family, home, and your solar system from a catastrophic EMP event in the comments below!