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The Impact of the Solar Eclipse on the Utility Grid

Jan Lee headshotWords by Jan Lee
Energy & Environment
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Utility companies across the country are preparing for the unexpected next Monday when the moon  crosses in front of the sun, creating the first total solar eclipse in for the U.S. almost than 40 years. While techies discuss the mechanics and safety of being able to catch the eclipse with a cell phone camera, California's power grid will have it own challenges, like how to balance the drain of upwards of 60,000 megawatts of power during the eclipse.

Although California isn't in the path of the total eclipse, the phenomena is expected to affect power generation for throughout the state. That's because the state receives a substantial amount of its power from the Northwest, which is in the direct path of the eclipse.

California ISO (Independent System Operator), the guys that operate the state's grid, say the anticipated loss  of power during the eclipse will be equivalent to what it would take to power 600,000 homes in California.   To offset its impact, grid operators are taking a page from the experiences of European grids, which juggled the impact of a near total eclipse with 90 GW of solar power on the grid in 2015.

Solar eclipses are actually quite common, occurring somewhere on the planet about every 18 months. But the increasing dependency on solar power has presented new challenges for grids that source low-emission power. This is also the first coast-to-coast solar eclipse to occur in the States since 1918. This year, the eclipse is expected to do more than momentarily plunge cities into darkness: It will test the very fabric of a budding green energy grid that increasingly relies on solar power.

North Carolina, which is in the direct path of the eclipse, will lose about 90 percent of its sunlight. And unlike in the Pacific Northwest, the drain of solar energy is expected to hit at peak usage time, between 1 and 3 pm, ET, when air conditioners will likely be in full operation.

Operators in both areas say the key to balancing power generation and usage will be taking advantage of the grid's diverse power sources.

"System operators are constantly monitoring demand and making decisions about what source – natural gas, solar, nuclear, hydropower, coal, wind, etc.– is the most efficient for that moment," Duke Energy explained on its website. The state is second only  to California in its solar generation, so the eclipse, which is expected to cross over the girth of the U.S. in an arc, has the ability to impact some of the the highest usage areas when it comes to solar power dependency.

Fortunately, many of those areas are already reliant on alternative sources for energy generation. In fact, notes James Conca, an environmental scientist and Forbes contributor, while many would like to see a decrease in dependency on sources like nuclear power across the globe, it's those very alternative power sources that will ensure minimal interruption during environmental events like total  eclipses.

"This energy diversity is critical because our energy system has to function through more and more frequent challenges, like extreme cold and Polar Vortices, water droughts and low mountain snowpack, heat waves with wind doldrums, and other problems," Conca writes. In other words, in coming years solar eclipses may be only one of several challenges that grid operators will have to face by juggling an array of technologies on the grid.

The eclipse is expected to cross over 12 states, casting a broad shadow from Portland, Ore. to Charleston, S.C.  It's also expected to boost demand on many cell phone providers, which are expecting increased travel to places like Wyoming to see the eclipse. To offset this challenge, AT&T is sending a "cell on wheels," appropriately called a COW in short, to eastern Wyoming to boost network capacity in high-usage areas.

And cell carriers aren't the only businesses expected to reap in the benefits of an extraordinary event. Bed and breakfasts, hotels and other hospitality providers are gearing up for the money-maker, which is among other things, expected to snare traffic in places like Western Oregon and Washington.

Oregon Department of Transportation is warning would-be travelers that the phenomena is likely to herald "the biggest transportation event that has ever hit Oregon." For places like Portland, the state's festival capital, that's saying something.

With warm summer temps extending across the Northwest, this year's unusual eclipse may be a true headache for power companies and cell providers, but it's likely going to be the summer's sweet spot for tourism providers who know these kind of attractions usually come once in a lifetime.

 

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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