Sustained post-Sandy outages left millions without power last week, driving many people to huddle near outlets at coffee shops and hotel lobbies to charge electronics before returning to dark homes.

 

The outages fueled frustration toward the traditional grid, but solar wasn't much better as much of the region went dark.

Ed Seliga lives near Princeton and was without power for a week, despite the intact solar array on his roof and the occasional breaks of sun after the storm cleared out.

"It is frustrating to look at those solar panels on your roof on a sunny day and realize they're doing you no good," Seliga said.

Seliga is vice president of Advanced Solar Products, which has installed about 150 solar arrays on homes concentrated in central New Jersey. Because most residential systems feed energy into the grid when there's a surplus, they automatically shut off if utilities are down to prevent worker injury.

"Just think about what's happening currently," Seliga said. "We have many, many crews of dedicated utility workers out there putting the wires back. And if we were putting electricity back onto those wires, that would be a terrible safety hazard."

That leaves most solar panels useless at a time they could potentially be the most help.

Automatic grid-disconnect switches and battery backups are available to homeowners, but they are so expensive and used so infrequently most people opt out.

"It's an added cost that most consumers don't generally invest in," said Monique Hanis, a spokeswoman for the Solar Energy Industries Association.  "It would be comparable to making the decision to buy a diesel generator."

Now that the price of batteries is coming down, though, more companies, including Seliga's, are looking to make solar a better option for power backups.

As his firm considers offering battery backups, it just launched a demonstration program that allows solar to supplement a gas-powered generator.