We’ll find out on August 21st, when an historic solar eclipse will throw much of the continental United States into darkness and deprive solar power producers of their source of energy in the process. As the FT reports, grid operators are readying for this event as a kind of stress test:
California’s grid operator on Monday estimated the eclipse would boost its net demand by 6,000 megawatts, enough power for the city of Los Angeles, as solar output nosedives.
Eclipses are among the latest factors utility managers must consider as renewable energy becomes a bigger part of the generation mix…Grid operators already handle supply vagaries every day, from glitches at power plants to the effects of cloudy days on solar facilities. The challenge from the eclipse will be keeping the lights on during a rapid decline and rebound in solar power.
This was a problem for Europe back in 2015, when a near-total solar eclipse threw the continent’s solar power supplies into disarray. As the FT put it, that was the “first major eclipse of the solar power era,” but as America’s example will show in August, it wasn’t the last.
These events highlight the central failing of renewable technologies today: namely, that we lack the ability to store the power they produce for use when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. Without scalable and cost-effective storage options, we’re left to the whims of weather, which on a day to day basis involves cloudy forecasts and windless days but can take the more extreme form of eclipses, as the United States is now preparing itself for.
Thankfully, here in the U.S. solar power accounts for less than one percent of our electricity generation, so the impact of the eclipse will be somewhat muted. But if greens want to see renewables take on a greater share of power mixes, they’ll need to cheerlead complementary technologies like smart grids and energy storage just as ardently as they support wind turbines and solar panels.
On a different note, this total solar eclipse is going to be quite the spectacle, and it ought to be well worth going out of your way to find a good vantage point for it. Here are some resources about the path of the eclipse, what to expect, and what safety precautions you might need to take.