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.