Too Much Utility-Scale Solar In California?

Large, utility-scale solar farms have recently been asked to be shut off at certain times by power companies.

Solar capacity has grown to such a point in California that, in combination with natural gas, wind, hydropower, and nuclear power, too much electricity may find its way onto the grid. The grid can only handle so much power before a black out occurs.

In effect, grid operators have had to tell solar farms to temporarily shut off at certain times of overall high energy production. Keith Casey, VP of California Independent System Operator, says that solar is “…zero carbon, clean energy. It would just be a travesty to curtail large amounts of it.”

In response to this dilemma, solar companies and grid operators are looking to expand their solar reach across state lines. Basically, when California is producing more solar than it can use, nearby states will buy the excess electricity.

Of course, much still has yet to be worked out as far as which utilities to work with. While California has strong renewable energy policies, other nearby states do not share the same goals.

For example, PacifiCorp operates a grid in Utah, Wyoming, Idaho and Oregon and is the largest owner of coal plants in the Western U.S. This utility might not be too quick to purchase power from a source of energy in direct competition to theirs. Also, California would be unlikely to purchase power from PacifiCorp as state law adds extra expense to fossil fuel generated electricity.

In addition to sending solar power across state lines, California utilities are starting to implement energy storage solutions on a large scale. Energy storage is by far the biggest key to the long term development of renewable energy.
utility energy storage
Pacific Gas & Electric, San Diego Gas & Electric, and Southern California Edison must install a total of 1.3 gigawatts of energy storage by 2020 in order to maximize the utility of existing solar farms. In fact, there are already a small number of very large battery banks being used by these utilities to store excess power.

While battery technology seems to be the “go-to” way to store power, other methods such as molten salt and compressed air technologies are currently being developed.

The good news is that the costs for battery energy storage is continuing to fall and will be much more cost effective in the coming years. No major breakthroughs in technology is required for this to happen. Costs will naturally fall as the energy storage industry expands.

A big picture viewpoint is that the renewable energy industry is going through some major growth pains. However, there’s good news on the horizon as excess solar power will be eventually be utilized to a great extent through regional sales and on site storage.

If anything, the bigger story here is storage, not regional solar sales. Affordable energy storage will allow homeowners and utilities alike to make the most of their solar power systems.

Expect to see many more energy storage stories in the coming months and years.

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