3 Ways the Traditional Electric Grid Can Adapt to the Solar Revolution

Given that solar has experienced an average annual growth rate of 68% in the last decade, there’s no doubt that solar power is challenging the traditional electric grid. Why? Because in many ways our electric grid is largely the same as the one envisioned and implemented by Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse over a hundred years ago.

But in recent years, advances in technology are having a disruptive effect similar to what we have experienced in the transformation of industries like telecommunications, media, and travel. As Richard L. Kauffman, New York’s first “energy czar,” explained, “[The grid] looks like a mainframe. We want a grid that looks like the IT system of today.” In this post we’ll explain three challenges the traditional electric grid is facing and how community solar is one way to get our electricity system ready for a more decentralized world.

Do renewables need gas plants?

            Electricity generation comes in two kinds: baseload and peaker plants. Baseload plants, like nuclear, supply a steady amount of power and can’t easily be turned up or down. When more electricity is needed, like on a hot summer day, “peaker plants” are turned on to provide the extra power. In general, peaker plants are some of the dirtiest coal-fired and natural gas plants in the country. They sit idle for most of the year, which makes turning them on for a limited timeframe really expensive. Also, in a 2016 study published in Energy Policy, Krieger et al. found that gas peaker plants emit 30% more carbon dioxide per megawatt hour than a natural gas baseload plant. As we add more renewables to the grid, peaker plants are also used to generate extra power when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. But there are increasingly new solutions that will be able to replace fossil fuel-based peaker plants. New advances in energy storage, smart meters, and energy conservation are helping decrease our reliance on peaker plants and cleaning up the grid.

From one-way to distributed generation

The conventional electric grid was built for a one-way flow of electricity: from the large power plant to the consumer. The proliferation of smaller, non-utility sources, such as rooftop solar, is called distributed generation. The grid wasn’t designed for this two-way flow of electricity. More distributed generation means we need to upgrade the conventional electric grid to a “smart grid.” Smart grids leverage two-way communication technologies, control systems and computer processing to manage electricity in a sustainable, reliable and economic manner. Smart grids are able to quickly and automatically respond to changes in electricity demand, improving security, reducing peak loads, lowering costs and supporting renewable energy adoption. As more smart grids are installed, rooftop and community solar will scale up and take advantage of the falling costs of solar panels (and the urgent need for climate action!). A grid with two-way flows of electricity and information is smarter, cheaper and cleaner. Already, some states are undergoing dramatic reforms to modernize their grid and incorporate more renewables, as with New York State’s Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) program.

The long trip from the power plant to your home

Conventional power plants are generally far away from your home. In New York, 60% of the state’s electricity demand is in the NYC area, while 60% of the electricity is generated outside that area. The majority of transmission and distribution lines were constructed post-WW2 with an estimated life expectancy of 50 years, making them vulnerable to today’s severe weather (like Hurricane Sandy) and the growing stress on the system. As electricity travels along transmission lines from generator to consumer, between 8 and 15% of power is lost in the form of heat, a tremendous waste. As mentioned above, more rooftop solar is challenging traditional grids and requiring the installation of new smart grids able to handle many different generators and consumers distributed across the grid. By distributing generation across many solar producers instead of a couple of major power plants, the distance electricity has to travel can be greatly reduced. The cost can also be decreased as power lost as it is transported to your home is reduced.

Community solar and the new grid

Community solar is a new way of producing and consuming renewable energy. A subscriber to community solar doesn’t need to install panels on their roof. Instead, a community solar subscriber commits to being a customer of the solar project and benefits from the clean power it generates. Community solar makes clean energy accessible to more people than ever before, but it also challenges the existing grid. To create a 21st century grid, we need smarter policies and regulations. We also need new designs and innovative engineering. Our Power is a gateway to community solar, where people can learn about how it works, find out about new community solar projects in their area, and sign up when those projects become operational. Our Power is committed to a clean energy future and encouraging the building of a smarter and greener electricity grid. Now we need you to join with us and demand change. Start today by learning more about community solar and signing up for our Insider’s List at www.ourpower.solar.

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