Cloudy Skies
What Hawaii Can Teach Us About Solar Power

Hawaii’s geography makes it well-suited for renewable energy—it’s forced to import and burn oil to generate electricity at great cost, and its sunny climate makes solar power an obvious choice. But for a state intent on going 100 percent green in just thirty short years, worrying signs of strain on power grids are already starting to appear. The WSJ reports:

…Hawaii’s grid is already running into problems with its heavy helping of rooftop solar and other carbon-free renewables. Among them: sudden swings in the output of solar and wind, which force the state’s main utility to scramble to try to keep the overall supply of power steady. […]

Though Hawaii’s effort is attracting attention around the globe, its electric system is unusual. For starters, each island has its own electric grid, and they aren’t connected. On the mainland, three big power grids serve 48 states; typically, the bigger the grid, the more stable it is. […]

More than 50,000 houses in the state act as tiny power plants, putting any electricity that they don’t use onto the grid. But grids were designed to zip electrons across high-voltage wires from a few big power plants to homes and businesses; they were not made to work the other way around. Traditional power plants weren’t designed to ramp up and down quickly, either—making it tough to absorb bursts of solar power added to the grid on sunny days or make up for a sudden drop on cloudy ones.

Grid stability is often overlooked or glossed over by renewable energy activists, but it remains a high hurdle communities will have to clear to significantly boost the share wind and solar have in the overall energy mix. Most grids as currently arrayed just aren’t equipped to send power in two directions, and as a result are destabilized when smaller, more distributed, and much more numerous solar and wind energy providers start providing power.

To make matters work, these renewables producers can’t contribute when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing, meaning they need to draw from the grid during certain times of the day. Lacking any cost-effective commercial-scale energy storage options, that means Hawaii will continue to have to rely on fossil fuels for those cloudy, windless days.

The Aloha State is fashioning itself as an American leader in solar energy, but is finding out that blazing that trail is a much tougher task than most greens like to think it is.

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