As recently as 2015, solar-powered energy was considered unreliable and ultimately unworkable on a mass scale. The think-tank Strata stated only a few years ago that “solar power is not physically reliable because it is inconsistent, inefficient, and cannot meet electricity demand.” However, opinion seems to have shifted recently — and shifted quite dramatically. According to Bloomberg, the International Energy Agency has declared that “renewables are set to overtake coal this decade as the world’s favorite fuel to generate electricity.” And Government Technology reported that Google has been purchasing significant amounts of energy from Tennessee-based solar farms to power its data centers.
Yet this increasing desire for and reliance on solar power isn’t without growing pains. Vox highlighted how blackouts/brownouts/outages have risen due to natural disasters and pointed out how the growing presence of clean technology is challenging the extant grid architecture. One thing is sure: Electrical technology is changing, and solar power is playing a large part in it.
How the Electric Grid is Changing to Include Solar
In order to understand how the electric grid is changing to include solar, it helps to know how the system works in the first place. The EPA explains, “The electricity grid is a complex machine in which electricity is generated at centralized power plants and decentralized units and is transported through a system of substations, transformers and transmission lines that deliver the product to its end-user, the consumer. Since large amounts of energy cannot be stored, electricity must be produced as it is used.”
At its highest level, the power/electric grid breaks down into three broad sections structured roughly around the continental divide, namely the Western Interconnect, the Easter Interconnect, and the Texas Interconnect. Within these areas exist smaller wholesale markets that buy and sell electricity among themselves before delivering it to retail consumers, as well as vertically integrated operations that provide power directly to end users. Finally, retail providers offer electricity to consumers through either state-regulated entities or in competitive arrangements.
It’s at this local level that the electrical grid is shifting itself to add in solar power options. However, the availability of these options depends on a number of very specific factors, some of which we will delve into below.
The Complexities and Challenges of Solar Energy Delivery
As the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) explains, “Utility-scale solar and wind power plants are conceptually similar to conventional generators — they generate electricity where the necessary resources are located, typically in remote areas where the fuel (sunlight or wind) is most abundant. These attributes — consolidating variable individual loads into more predictable regional loads, siting plants near their resource base, and extensive transmission lines — help the grid provide electric power with good reliability and low cost.”
This sounds simple enough. Still, it’s worth noting that delivering solar power in a distributed energy network faces significant challenges and complexities. For instance, photovoltaics (i.e., systems that convert light into electricity by using semiconducting materials such as gallium arsenide, lead, or tin) cannot provide power on demand, and the same is usually true of concentrated solar power systems (i.e., systems that use mirrors to focus sunlight onto a central power receiver). That means such power must be used as it is generated. This need is underscored by how relatively difficult it is to store electrical power when compared to other types of energy, such as hydropower, geothermal, coal, or nuclear.
Finally, some of the early skeptics of solar power had a point: Distributed energy generation cannot solely rely on solar power given its variability. NREL states, “While small amounts of [photovoltaic] power can be incorporated into the grid with few changes, the development of grid-monitoring technologies (i.e., the so-called Smart Grid), and more cost-effective electricity storage systems will be needed to deploy large amounts of [photovoltaic] power.” A reticence to spend the capital necessary for such costly upgrades is a major roadblock. (More on that down below.)
How Solar is Increasing as a Source of Renewable Energy
Despite such inherent challenges, solar power is experiencing significant and sustained growth. Writing for Forbes, Dr. Joshua D. Rhodes of The University of Texas at Austin points out that solar energy is expected to far outstrip other renewables all the way through 2050. He states, “Total installed U.S. PV capacity is expected to more than double over the next five years as grid interconnection queues from California to Texas to the Mid Atlantic are full of solar projects. Thus, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that solar PV installer will be the fastest growing job between 2018 and 2028, with a median annual wage of over $42,000.” Indeed, California (which has more photovoltaic capacity than any other state) has been able to periodically meet more than half of its energy demand with solar sources.
Is Renewable Energy Outpacing Distribution?
It’s worth noting that while renewable energy sources in general — and solar power in particular — generally can’t outpace the distribution networks of which they’re a part, sometimes they have been ignored by traditional power providers. In their book Operation of Distributed Energy Resources in Smart Distribution Networks, Emilio Ghiani and Giuditta Pisano noted how renewable energy sources were once “considered as negative loads to be connected and forgotten.”
However, that seems to be changing. Despite recent year over year declines in smart-grid investment, Statista reports approximately 87 million consumer smart meters have been installed. Additionally, such systems currently deliver 11,637 trillion BTUs of renewable energy, and that number looks poised to only rise.
Ways Solar Power is Impacting the Market
From undervalued energy source to an increasingly valuable production technology, solar energy is impacting the energy market in fascinating ways. The periodical Energy Post reports that growth in solar power will cause economic impacts such as:
- Changing demand for certain types of traditional energy
- The displacement of pricier renewable energy sources
- Increasing cycling expenses
- Increasing electricity price spikes
Given both the positive and negative impacts of America’s increasing reliance on solar power, it’s important that your utility runs as efficiently as possible. Milsoft’s software can help you manage your grid effectively and provide reliable service to your valued customers.