Can Solar Prevent Blackouts?

Poor solar power gets a tough rap sometimes. People say you can't count on it, and that it's never there when you need it. But that may just be because we're not playing to its strengths as well as we could. This week, a study came out of Australia showing that solar energy had helped to meet soaring electricity demand in the extraordinary heat waves that have been cooking our friends Down Under.

Load leveling
The concept here is fairly straightforward. Under normal circumstances, our electricity grid relies on stable power sources that can deliver on a constant, consistent basis. Traditionally, the backbone of this system has been coal-fired power plants, with natural gas-fired plants joining more recently. The problem is that these sources struggle to meet demand spikes under extreme weather events, such as extreme cold (polar vortex, anyone?) or heat. We all run to our thermostats to crank them within an inch of their lives, and there's not enough power on the grid to meet all of that demand. Cue the blackouts.

Now, it's true that renewable sources such as solar and wind are not consistently reliable. No sun, no solar power. No wind, no ... well ... wind power. But these sources are often available during exactly the type of weather events that create that excess demand, and they can back up the grid at those times. This is known as load leveling.

Tesla Motors (NASDAQ: TSLA  ) and Solar City (NASDAQ: SCTY  ) figure there's something to this. The two companies have worked together on the DemandLogic system, combining solar power and storage for commercial buildings. Solar City makes the solar array, and Tesla makes the batteries. DemandLogic communicates with the broader electrical grid, allowing it to respond to rate and demand fluctuations.

The future of renewables, and our power grid in general, depends on the proper deployment of a diversity of resources. Tesla and Solar City may be about to reap the rewards. Watch the following video to learn more.

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  • Report this Comment On January 26, 2014, at 5:13 PM, mikegalt wrote:

    Solar still haas problems even if they fill in power during a summer drought. The amount of soalr electricity made decreases in winter months due to the angle of the sun in the USA. Cloudy weather blocks the sun and decreases electricity production. The worse thing right now is heavy snow fall that is covering the solar panels (which I own) and will not fall off them until it get above freezing again. I have tried brooming the snow off but this is a big job even for someone like me with ground mounted solar panels. What do you do with roof mounted one? You just can't turn on a switch and get enormous amounts of electricity from fossil fuel plants. They must be up and running to have that capability. This means that power companies need redundant systems which can triple the price of electricity rather than having just coal fired or natural gas fired plants. The cost per kW for electricity produced by solar remains extremely high compared to all other methods of producing electricity. before the USA goes down the solar path under Obama we better learn from Spain and Germany who are closing down their solar programs because of the expense. Spain is nearly bankrupt now.

  • Report this Comment On January 26, 2014, at 11:09 PM, jeffhre wrote:

    "Solar triples the price of electricity from coal or gas." Please show where this it true.

    "Solar does not work where it snows." Please show where a reputable source has measured this effect.

    "Cost per KW for electricity remains high." Summer loads push up electricity prices due to air conditioning. Solar panels respond precisely to those conditions and reduce marginal costs for all power users.

    "before the USA goes down the solar path under Obama we better learn from Spain and Germany who are closing down their solar programs because of the expense." German solar is such a large scale industry, (even with much worse sun conditions than the US), they are able to install solar for much less than in the US, which has inspired them to quickly lower subsidies.

    Someone who actually DOES have solar panels would likely not have gotten every single point made incorrect.

  • Report this Comment On January 27, 2014, at 7:51 PM, JackEllisTahoe wrote:

    "Someone who actually DOES have solar panels would likely not have gotten every single point made incorrect."

    Perhaps, but as someone who works in the power industry and deals with this stuff every day...

    Solar is useless during the night and it's production is limited on cloudy days.

    Solar is still expensive when compared with grid power. Moreover, it's not as helpful as you might think on hot days and at high penetration levels, it creates all sorts of problems for the electric grid when demand is more moderate. See for a glimpse of the future if California continues to increase it's renewable energy targets.

    The distribution system is not designed to send large amounts of distributed (rooftop) solar back to the transmission grid, but owners of rooftop PV complain loudly when asked to pay for the use of these wires and any necessary upgrades.

    Germany is reducing its subsidies because the cost is making electricity unaffordable for lower income consumers. Spain is reducing its subsidies in a belated effort to keep its utilities out of bankruptcy since none of the added costs have been passed on to consumers of grid power...yet.

    I'm not suggesting solar is bad, but it's also not the silver bullet some people think it is.

  • Report this Comment On January 28, 2014, at 5:57 PM, NoTrueValue wrote:

    Solar is useless when it reveals no true value and the install causes house damage

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Sara Murphy

Sara has been writing about and analyzing companies from a sustainable investment perspective for the last 15 years. An ardent optimist, she believes that it is entirely possible for all stakeholders to benefit and profit from companies' ingenuity and innovation.

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