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Natural Disaster
Europe Fears Tomorrow’s Eclipse

A near-total solar eclipse will blanket Europe in darkness early tomorrow morning, sending stargazers into a tizzy and utilities into a panic as the Continent prepares for a major disruption to its growing solar energy sector. The WSJ reports:

The partial disappearance of the sun Friday will place a huge strain on Europe’s energy system. Normally, when the sun goes down, it takes about an hour for the light to fade. That gives time for electricity grids to substitute the power flowing from solar panels with electricity generated from traditional sources such as coal and natural gas.

By contrast, an eclipse blocks the sun in just a few minutes, leading to a potential sudden drop of up to 35,000 megawatts of generation capacity. That is the equivalent of about 20 large coal-fired power plants coming off the grid at the same time. Conventional electricity suppliers will have to seamlessly substitute power to prevent blackouts, and then they must shut down capacity as solar power rebounds.

A break in the switch from solar to conventional power sources could “result in a cascade of electricity blackouts, similar to when a tree falls on a local power line but across the country,” said Alessandro Abate, a professor at Oxford University’s Department of Computer Science, who is studying Friday’s eclipse.

This could turn out to be nothing, as other public panics have been (Y2K, anyone?). Some analysts are even speculating that the potential impact on supply brought by the sudden stop to solar production will be offset by a dip in demand as people migrate outside to view the 15-minute event. We said it before, but it bears repeating: civilization hasn’t feared an eclipse this month since the days when superstition cast the phenomenon as a portent of doom.

It will be interesting to see how Europe manages to deal with this stress test, but even if this turns about to nothing more than an astronomical oddity, it will have cast light on a central and as-yet unsolved problem with renewable energy sources: intermittency. Without cost-effective ways to store the energy generated by wind turbines and solar panels, we have no way consistently to rely on renewables for round-the-clock power generation.

The next total solar eclipse won’t occur over Europe for another 80 years. Hopefully, by then researchers will have pioneered better ways to store the energy generated from solar panels, essentially solving the intermittency problem this eclipse is throwing in such stark relief. As for what happens tomorrow, we’ll have to wait and see.

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  • Laurence Levin

    Wouldn’t it make sense to use solar and wind polar for powering electrolysis of water and then using the hydrogen as a fuel. That can be fairly easily stored.

    • Kevin

      Of course that would also involve huge losses of energy at each stage along the way. The advantage of hydrocarbons is that they have a relatively high density of potential energy to mass making them relatively easy to store and transport and you can burn them when and where you need energy – that and a hundred years of optimization to increase their efficiency.

      • Andrew Allison

        Exactly. Where needed is the reason that electric vehicles, for example, are actually more harmful to the environment than the infernal combustion engine. Electrolysis only requires two changes of state rather than the six required to power an electric vehicle (not to mention transmission losses).

    • CaliforniaStark

      There is currently significant research taking place regarding electrolysis. Presently, the amount of energy consumed by the process itself makes it uneconomical. But much progress is being made, in areas such as high temperature electrolysis and developing more productive ligands, that may result in breakthrough technologies being developed. A major problem in the United States is limited funds are available to develop new technologies — instead the focus is on providing large subsidies to the existing wind and ethanol industries, and to a lesser extend solar. These technologies already have been developed; their subsidies need to be phased out in favor of new research.

  • Rick Johnson

    No, hopefully in 80 years time we will have recovered from this Green madness and our grandchildren will be telling funny stories of how stupid we were back then.

  • Fat_Man

    Oh lord. Is there no limit to the amount of hysteria the media spreads. The eclipse will only be total in the sub arctic. see this url:

    In most of Europe the eclipse will be partial, whcich means that it will be like a morning that clouds up and then becomes sunny.

    The real problem with solar is not eclipses. It is that the sun sets every day, and is lower and the days are shorter in the winter when the lights and heat are needed more. (Californians can shut up about air conditioning, it is not a big thing in most of Europe). It is simply a horrendous waste of money.

    And, no there will never be sufficient economical storage to make solar even moderately useful.

  • rheddles

    OK, it’s tomorrow. Where’s the screaming banner on Drudgereport?

  • Pait

    Of course nothing happened as every engineer knew. The fact that their predictions always fail to materialize will deter the anti-green activists at the Wall Street Journal from sputtering some alarmist nonsense of this type whenever they want to rage against solar power, right?

    This interesting blog squanders its credibility by parroting rabid lunatics.

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