If you blinked, you missed it. March 13 was Solar Appreciation Day, and even with all the coronavirus goings-on the Energy Department remembered to blast out an email reminding everyone (well, everyone on their email list) to appreciate solar power. As if we need reminding! Nevertheless, let’s dig into that email because it offers up an interesting counterpoint to a major new energy report from The Atlantic Council.
It’s Solar Power Appreciation Day!
For those of you new to the topic — as are we — Solar Appreciation Day has been celebrated every year on the second Friday of March each year since…well, if you can figure out who started Solar Appreciation Day and when they started it, drop us a note in the comment thread.
Meanwhile, the Energy Department finds plenty to appreciate about solar power. Here’s a condensed version of their list of things to celebrate:
1. The sun is nearly limitless and can be accessed anywhere on earth at one time or another.
2. The cost of solar panel installation is less than $3 a watt; a whopping 65% decrease from $8.50 per watt 10 years ago.
3. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has created six-junction solar cells that convert 47% of the captured sunlight into electricity.
4. In 1954, Bell Laboratories built the first silicon solar cell—the template for nearly all of the solar PV technologies in use today.
5. DOE research is supporting an advanced solar system that can restart the grid if no spinning turbine is available.
6. Solar provides 30% of the new electricity produced in the United States in 2019, up from just 4% in 2010.
7. About 250,000 people work in the U.S. solar industry these days and there are more than 10,000 solar businesses around the country.
8. The cost of an average-size residential solar energy system decreased 55% between 2010 and 2018, from $40,000 to $18,000. DOE is also focusing on reducing financing burdens and red tape for American families who choose to go solar.
9. Solar panels are a manufactured product that take significantly less energy to fabricate than they produce over their lifetime.
Got all that? Good! Most of this is familiar territory, but one thing that does stick out is item #5, in which the Energy Department brings up the topic of what to do if no spinning turbine is available.
Solar Power & Grid Services
What they’re referring to in item #5 is the key question of grid services, which is an area formerly reserved for large, centralized power plants that do their own thing regardless of what the sun is doing. Now that coal is on the downswing and nuclear energy is in the woodshed, that role has been assumed by natural gas.
“The U.S. electric grid requires constant monitoring and control to ensure customers have reliable access to power,” explains the Energy Department. “Grid operators manage electricity supply and demand on the electric system by providing a range of ‘grid services’—which are activities grid operators perform to maintain system-wide balance and manage electricity transmission better.”
Now consider solar power, which cycles up and down according to the availability of sunlight, and consider that grid-connected solar power ranges in size from small rooftop installations to megawatt-scale solar farms, and you’ve got a lot more grid management going on.
The picture gets even more complicated when you throw in the ancillary services performed by centralized power plants. They smooth out load bumps, regulate voltage and frequency, and maintain the ability to restart the system quickly after an outage — advantages that gas stakeholders are happy to point out.
“They establish backup power options and map out major power loss recovery strategies, helping to maintain the safe delivery and use of electricity,” explains the Energy Department. “From voltage and frequency control to generation reserve management and black start operations, these grid services ensure system-wide reliability.”
The Solar Power Advantage
Black start! Now we’re getting somewhere. Until recent years, the conventional wisdom was that only a conventional power plant could get the grid up and running again after a system wide failure.
By 2018, though, the Energy Department was performing real-world research demonstrating that utility-scale solar power plants could provide the same — or better — grid services than conventional power plants.
In one field study, a new 300-megawatt solar power plant reacted just as quickly to load changes as other power plants, while achieving a regulation accuracy that was almost 30% higher.
Energy Department researchers have also found that solar power can fill the need for reserve power that is pre-synchronized to drop into the grid at a moment’s notice.
These “spinning reserves” can be provided by a combination of PV panels and energy storage. Concentrating solar power plants can also fill the spinning reserves role, too.
As for that black start thing, here’s what the Energy Department says about that:
“After a major natural disaster or cyberattack causes a system-wide electricity outage, grid operators must safely reboot the entire system. This can be incredibly challenging and is largely a manual process for grid operators as they must maintain a fine balance between energy supply and demand.”
That process can take days, and that’s where solar has another chance to out-perform conventional grid operations. Over at the Energy Department’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, researchers are working on a system that deploys solar (among other distributed energy resources) in a self-configuring microgrid that adapts to feedback.
The aim is to reduce the cost of a system-wide reboot and bring the reconnection time down to a matter of hours instead of days, by working from the outside in rather than trying to restart from one central location.
What’s All This About The Atlantic Council?
Against this backdrop, the Energy Department is also celebrating the release of a major energy report it commissioned from the venerable Atlantic Council, a NATO-supporting think tank that launched in 1961.
Check out the Atlantic Council’s 2018 major donor list and you’ll see an interesting mix of US government support and US corporations (Facebook, Starbucks, Twenty-First Century Fox, and Twitter, among others), along with considerable international support and an impressive representation from global oil and gas stakeholders.
With that in mind, it’s no surprise that the report — titled “A new energy strategy for the Western Hemisphere” — makes a case for continuing to develop oil and gas resources in the Americas alongside new clean technology.
“There are significant, diverse needs throughout the region, including improving the mining and production of critical materials and discovering novel ways for oil and gas exploration,” the report concludes.
What about coal? If you can find coal in the report, drop us a note in the comment thread.
If there is no coal in the report, that’s an interesting development because up until recently President* Trump insisted there will be a renaissance for coal miners in the US, that is, until things began to go south. Nowadays he’s showering praise on oil and gas while coal gets the bum’s rush.
Speaking of oil and gas — and the new coronavirus — the new Atlantic Council report was researched and written long before the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic and oil prices crashed, with a consequent impact on US oil and gas stakeholders.
On top of that, new developments in solar technology and renewable energy grid integration are coming thicker and faster than energy policy researchers can keep up with. It sure looks like those oil and gas stakeholders should make hay while the sun shines, before the next energy report from the Atlantic Council hangs them out to dry.
Meanwhile, CleanTechnica is checking in with the Livermore lab to see where its black start study is at, so stay tuned for more on that.
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Photo: “Allen Anderberg, Steve Rummel, and Dean Levi of NREL’s Cell and Module Performance group measure the power output of a PV module on NREL’s solar simulator” by Dennis Schroeder, via US Department of Energy.
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