In the storm-darkened Rockaways, solar panels have helped power several relief efforts, and some experts say that in the future, the systems could help prevent blackouts from being so widespread in the first place.
During normal, non-outage conditions, solar system feed their excess power back into the grid during the day, then when the sun goes down, pull electricity back off of it. Consequently, when power outages do occur, most solar-powered houses actually go dark too. Their connection to the grid is severed so as to keep electrical workers safe and avoid damaging lines.
However, with power systems that are capable of re-routing power off the grid during a blackout and storing excess energy in batteries, solar-powered houses can stay alight during power outages. As of now, this kind of setup is possible, but very expensive, but in the future, it could help decentralize power to avoid mass outages.
“The grid won’t evolve into something more distributed and fault-tolerant overnight — it’s still dependent upon a centralized system,” said Ben Tarbell of SolarCity, a company that donated panels after Katrina and Sandy. “But the components are starting to come together.”