Blog from Jane Marsh: Can solar energy become a regular part of the grid?

The idea of off-grid living — free of failing public utilities and exorbitant bills — is a lifestyle many have only dreamed of. However, decentralizing the electric grid isn’t as unfeasible as some may have thought with the advanced renewable energy options now available.

Regardless of the legal implications and stringent safety requirements of tapping into external power sources, public opinion has seemingly shifted toward moving away from the grid entirely. Part of this new mindset derives from rising energy costs, while extreme weather events have highlighted the shortcomings of a crumbling power system.

Solar energy decreases the public’s financial, infrastructural and environmental responsibilities for grid upkeep. Here is a discussion of if solar energy should stay separate or could become a part of the standard power grid.

The Argument for a Solar-Enhanced Grid

In February 2017, a winter storm caused mass power outages across Houston, Texas — leaving nearly three million Texans without electricity or heat for days. At the time, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas blamed freezing temperatures for faulty wind turbines, low gas pressure and iced equipment. However, this wasn’t the first incident of grid failure due to inclement weather.

Climate change-induced events — hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires and more — could become increasingly commonplace as the earth’s atmosphere heats up. While several states have yet to jump on board, many have already recognized the importance of having a more reliable energy source. Throughout certain parts of the country, solar energy accounts for 15% of grid power generation.

Homeowners have also decided they’d rather keep the power on at all times, especially while some of the worst natural disasters hit their region. In southwestern states, rooftop solar panels receive nearly 5.75 kilowatt-hours per meter-squared daily. Households in colder areas can also reap the benefits of solar power, with many homeowners taking advantage of federal tax credits to install costly solar panels.

While a solar-enhanced grid is likely to solve many of the electric and environmental problems associated with traditional power generation, whether solar energy can replace or become a substantial part of the grid is up for debate.

Is Solar Energy Enough to Replace the Grid?

Technology advancements have made notable headway regarding clean, reliable energy. However, the mechanics behind renewable energy generation — particularly solar power — may not be ready to handle the pressure.

Consider that the grid maintains a stable 60 or 50 hertz of electricity using large spinning generators and turbines. Conversely, solar energy uses inverters that imitate the energy rotation in power plants. The benefit is that renewable energy gets stored, making it most valuable when the power goes out.

Naturally, some people may be surprised to learn they stay connected to the grid after installing solar panels. The reason is that solar panels only store sunlight throughout the day and may not have enough energy to operate throughout the evening. Additionally, a home’s solar panels can transmit residual power to the grid when they generate more electricity than the house needs.

Although sole reliance on solar energy may not currently meet its full potential, it’s essential to recognize that this is primarily due to the grid system falling apart. In the United States, homeowners who install solar panels on their roofs find the grid is too overloaded for solar-produced electricity to travel.

Unfortunately, this also means old transformers and electrical lines hinder the nation’s ability to eliminate its dependence on fossil fuels. Instead, policymakers and engineers must improve grid architecture to accommodate weather disruptions and transition from centralized power to sweeping small-scale external sources.

The idea that solar-enhanced grids are unreliable or that other countries count on fossil fuels as a backup is a myth. For example, European countries already receive up to three-fourths of their electricity from renewable energy. The U.S. should do more to merge solar energy with the grid as well.

Keep the Power On With an Improved Grid

Solar energy and the grid work together to deliver clean energy to homes and businesses worldwide. Making improvements to the current grid system while advancing renewable-energy research is critical if the U.S. hopes to maintain a reliable power source in the future.

 

About the author: Jane works as an environmental and energy writer. She is also the founder and editor-in-chief of Environment.co

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