A reader recently passed along a story in The West Australian that made scary, but incorrect, claims about rooftop solar power.
Rooftop solar is quite helpful for grid stability and resilience. If large power plants go down quickly, the grid can have difficulty responding. If the grid is composed of many smaller-scale power generation facilities (like rooftop solar systems and wind turbines), a single power generation facility — or even a neighborhood of them — going offline doesn’t present such threat to the grid.
The story in The West Australian ignored these benefits, took some regulatory phrasing that sounded scary, and drummed up an article that looked like it should concern the common citizen. The article didn’t appear to discuss the topic with any independent experts except representatives of the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) and didn’t seem to reach out to anyone in the solar industry. I contacted the author of the article to try to find out more about his process for this article and whether other experts were consulted, but I did not receive a response.
The first third of the article is essentially short paragraphs that include concerning language to make rooftop solar seem like a dangerous source of power, including statements like “extraordinary powers designed for emergencies such major power plant failures or bushfires are being triggered to protect WA’s main grid from soaring output generated by rooftop solar panels” and “the market can no longer cope with the solar power being pumped out during certain conditions.” These statements don’t come with any clearly pertinent details, but they go on long enough and have enough of a coherent narrative to them that the reader could easily have a fear of rooftop solar before they realize they haven’t really learned anything.
What was the actual issue in the end? The issue was simply that, because rooftop solar — Western Australia’s #1 source of electricity now — generates so much electricity, coal and natural gas power plants sometimes have to be shut off to match electricity supply and demand.
Is this a bad thing? Isn’t that the point of going solar?
In the end, after paragraphs of scary language and sentences insinuating imminent collapse from too much rooftop solar, the problem is simply that dirty power plants have to be turned off as more solar power comes onto the grid.
The second half of the article is actually similar to the first, repeatedly using the term “high risk” since the regulatory powers that AEMO used are apparently for a “high risk state” operating procedures — and it sounds scary, which seems to be the main point of the piece.
Toward the end of the article, the writer references the AEMO representative with the sentence, “It was only a matter of time, he indicated, before AEMO would regularly need to use high risk powers to make sure the lights stayed on unless there were changes to the market.” Those powers apparently include shutting down power plants that aren’t needed and adding more battery storage to the grid.
So, the basic takeaway of this article, as messaged throughout much of it, was that rooftop solar power is scary, dangerous, and creating “high risk” for the grid — almost sure to lead to blackouts, you know? The reality when you get into the weeds, however, is that rooftop solar power is so widespread in Western Australia now that dirty power plants are sometimes being shut off and the grid operator could use more battery storage to soak up extra solar generation at times of high production.
I reached out to Mark Z. Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University and director of its Atmosphere/Energy Program, to some more informed, professional feedback on the concerns. “Excess rooftop PV during the day is a straightforward problem to solve, and the solution will reduce emissions in other energy sectors,” he noted. “For example, excess electricity can be used to produce hydrogen for transportation; stored as heat in water or underground rocks; stored as cold in water or ice; or stored as electricity in pumped hydro storage or batteries. Such storage will offset fossil fuel emissions in non-electricity and electricity energy sectors, thereby significantly reducing health and climate costs of fossil fuels at a direct energy cost similar to or less than that of fossil fuels.”
Jacobson also referenced an article from Australia-based Giles Parkinson on RenewEconomy that claims that more rooftop solar is needed in Australia in order to help stabilize the grid.
Why did the writer of the The West Australian and AEMO need to make rooftop solar sound so concerning? That’s hard to say.
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