Brownouts: Is Solar Energy the Cause or the Cure?

If you don’t have a dog in the fight against climate change, you might be confused about conflicting headlines. The “Daily Caller” once claimed that solar power could fry Germany’s power grid while other publications are claiming that solar energy is the cure for brownouts.

The truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Solar energy, like any form of new power, has some kinks to work out. And it’s worth noting that the kinks in solar energy are nowhere near as dangerous or frightening as the kinks in electricity’s early days. Ask anyone whose house blew up before alternating current was discovered. And before clean electricity became a thing we all take for granted, households that ran on coal were plagued with upper respiratory health issues.

Like early electricity, solar power is still in development, and the auxiliary technology needed to make it secure is still in development, too. In Europe, Austria, and North America, most solar technology is tied into the existing power grid. When their houses can’t run on the sun, they have electricity and natural gas as a backup. That means, when the sun hasn’t shone for a week, people with solar panels still take hot showers and have the benefits of heat, air conditioning, lights, refrigeration, and computer technology.

Unarguably, a connection to the grid makes solar power more secure. At its very best, excess solar energy can be given back to the grid to meet the needs of an ever expanding population. Many solar panel owners find themselves in the enviable position of being able to sell power back to the power company.

But the downside of tapping into the grid is that, when the grid fails, so does the solar. That’s why some towns in California find themselves in the ironic position of having no power at all on a sunny day. Solar energy cannot save them from a brownout when the demand for power exceeds the abilities of the grid or, sometimes, if a single power line succumbs to storm or fire.

Remote regions, such as rural India, which have skipped over the grid and gone straight to solar do not have this problem, but they also don’t have the security of power when the sun or their solar equipment fails.

And solar power in abundance can add to the strain on an aging power grid. Some experts predict that, in Germany, where solar power has flourished due to generous subsidies, the amount of solar power will soon outstrip the capacity of the country’s energy infrastructure.

Three things are needed to keep the dream of solar alive across the world: solar batteries, smart inverters, and improvements to the infrastructure.

Solar batteries

Batteries that can store solar energy for use at night, during a cloudy day, or during a black out, offer new hope for better energy stability across the globe. A leader in creating space-efficient, wall-mountable batteries is Tesla, led by Elon Musk, an inventor most famous for PayPal and an electric luxury car. Tesla’s Powerwall is a battery that basically acts as a backup generator—without the diesel. It can store both traditional electric and solar power for use when every other form of power fails.

The use of solar batteries should not be confined to individual homes and businesses. Smart community leaders are already looking at how centralized batteries can keep the town’s lights on—even when it’s surrounded by blackouts.

Smart Inverters

Smart inverters are an improvement to solar technology that enable grid-based solar panels to switch off their dependence on the energy infrastructure and operate independently. This is a huge step toward energy stability and solves the problem of brownouts on a sunny day. Tesla has incorporated inverters into some of its Powerwall batteries so that solar customers can bundle their energy security.

Improvements to the grid

It’s a good time to live in Germany which is now leading the world in solar energy use. Would that we all had the problem of too much solar power. However, Germany will soon have to bite the bullet and invest in improvements to its elderly power infrastructure. Without country-wide improvements, solar users could, indeed, find that a flip of the switch does not turn the lights on.

However, it is empirically unfair to blame solar energy, alone, for straining power grids. Like it or not, power grids must be upgraded from time to time to accommodate both increasing populations and the escalation of small and large appliance development which has become part of modern life. Some people couldn’t imagine life without wii sports. But in the 1950s, when much of today’s power grid was constructed, wii was not even a glimmer in an inventor’s eye.

The truth is that power grids would have to upgraded, with or without solar energy’s advent. Headlines that predict a power failure in Germany for which solar is solely to blame are wildly inaccurate.

At the same time, solar advocates need to be careful not to oversell solar energy. It has the potential to stabilize energy security in combination with other energy sources. But the technology to make it so is still partly on the drawing board.

By Lynn Hamilton

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