The Biggest Discovery of the Great American Solar Eclipse

by Anna Gretz
August 5, 2017
Energy

Fifty years ago when residents of Charlotte, North Carolina heard there was going to be a solar eclipse, they would look forward to a monumental natural phenomenon. But this year, many are anticipating something very different--a near energy crisis.

North Carolina, the home of Duke Energy, ranks second highest in the nation in solar power capacity. When the solar eclipse robs the state of the sun’s rays, there’s 3,000 megawatts of energy on the line. To put this in perspective, cutting 3,000 MW of power is the equivalent of multiple nuclear reactors simultaneously shutting down. This is a major power grid disruption--a big blow to a system that’s already not very stable.

The power grid in North Carolina, as well as the country as a whole, wasn’t made for this. Actually, the power grid wasn’t made for our current, modern society at all. It was constructed decades ago to handle much lighter loads, and far less fluctuations in supply and demand.

Solar power is a fantastic, clean, renewable energy source, but the current energy grid, as it stands, just wasn’t built with solar power accomodation in mind; it definitely wasn’t built with solar power + a solar eclipse in mind.

On an average sunny day, Duke Energy takes in enough energy from the sun to power 600,000 homes. In order to prepare for the eclipse, and the accompanying loss of solar power, Duke has had to work with solar farm owners to replace the electricity they would normally supply with backup power from natural gas plants. It will take a little bit of maneuvering, but there’s enough backup power to cover the gap. In California, the loss of energy is much, much greater.

Though North Carolina has the second-highest solar generation in the country, its numbers pale in comparison to California’s. California currently counts on solar to supply 9 percent of the state’s electricity. To cut that supply abruptly for 90 minutes in the dog days of August is no small thing. California’s Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has already launched a campaign to urge residents to turn off appliances and unplug power strips to “let our hard working sun take a break” during the eclipse.

Though the eclipse will definitely have a significant effect on California’s energy resources, Michael Picker of the CPUC says it’s nothing that the state can’t handle. Picker says that asking Californians to participate in energy saving practices is a great way to raise awareness about energy usage, but “we have plenty of wind, geothermal, hydro, and natural gas to make sure the grid runs smoothly during the solar eclipse.”

The “Great American Solar Eclipse” of 2017 has illuminated the new reality of American electricity: we now rely on solar power. We depend on energy from the sun enough that we have to do some serious strategizing to make sure everyone still has power when there is an abnormal decrease in sunshine for a few hours. This simply wasn’t a consideration in past years. Things are different now. We’re increasingly becoming a solar-powered country.

The residents of California, North Carolina, and the wider country are relieved to hear reports like Michael Pickers--reassuring statements that tell us it’s all going to be fine, that we have enough backup power to avoid blackouts. We can handle it.

This time.

But what about California’s next major solar eclipse in 2045? With the rate that Californian residents and businesses are installing rooftop solar, California’s stake in solar power is going to be much higher than 9 percent in 2045. And if California’s numbers are higher, everyone else’s will be, too. Is the acceleration of solar power installations about to get the power grid in really big electrical trouble next time we have a solar eclipse?

Not necessarily. There’s actually a really simple fix to dealing with the sun’s intermittency, and it doesn’t have anything to do with urging millions of people to unplug from the grid to “help the sun out.” There’s plenty of energy to go around… we just have to start storing it.

Energy storage isn’t a new idea--many rooftop solar owners already have a battery on-site to store the solar energy they’re not using during the day so they can tap into later, when they need it. Residential energy storage has been catching on, and catching the eye of companies like Tesla, who has now released their second rendition of their home battery, the Powerwall. Just as homeowners have started using batteries to secure backup power, so have utilities.

Especially in California, where utility-scale solar has really taken off, utilities are looking to energy storage to secure their energy in the shadow of an unreliable power grid. With more energy storage capacity available, a disruption in the sun’s energy wouldn’t pose a problem at all, since there could be plenty of stored energy on hand to supplement, and cover the normal level of electricity demand.

Storing energy on a utility scale would give power companies the opportunity to continue delivering electricity to customers seamlessly, even when energy levels fluctuate. Residential energy storage gives homeowners energy security in all circumstances, so that power outages are no longer a threat.

There’s no question that our country as a whole should, and will, continue to rely more and more on renewable energy resources like solar power. But as we do, we also need to move towards the development of energy storage as well. Then, we’ll be able to easily handle the next solar eclipse.