Total eclipses, solar PV and the grid

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Utilities and electric grid coordinators are preparing for a total solar eclipse that is projected to temporarily reduce solar photovoltaic generation across parts of North America this summer. 

The 2017 total solar eclipse will be the first in the U.S. in 26 years (since Hawaii 1991), and the first in the lower 48 states since 1979.  While the duration of the total eclipse across the U.S. will be roughly 93 minutes, some areas in its path will experience up to 95% of the Sun being obscured.

The eclipse is projected to affect solar PV generation.  Solar resources occupy an increasing role in the U.S. electric generating portfolio. Between 2000 and 2016, total U.S. solar capacity increased from 5 megawatts (MW) to 42,619 MW.  But as more solar resources are connected to the grid, the potential impact of an eclipse on grid operations may change.

According to a May 1, 2017 presentation to the Board of Governors of the California ISO, the eclipse is projected to reduce solar output in the CAISO region by 4,194 megawatts, while gross load will increase by 1,365 MW.  Taking into account estimated wind production, the presentation projects a net load increase of 6,008 MW during the eclipse.

The ramp rate, or speed at which supply and demand will change, is also a factor.  The eclipse is projected to diminish solar output by about 70 MW per minute as it approaches totality, and about 90 MW per minute on the return.  By contrast, a typical average ramp rate for CAISO might be 29 MW per minute.  Thus the eclipse is projected to call for a greater degree of fast-ramping or flexible resources, compared to typical operating conditions.

But according to international electric reliability organization NERC, the August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse "is unlikely to cause any reliability issues to the North American bulk power system."  NERC documented its findings in an April 25, 2017 white paper, A Wide-Area Perspective on the August 21, 2017 Total Solar Eclipse.  NERC's report identifies California and North Carolina as the states most likely to experience the greatest impact from solar production fall-off from the eclipse. At the same time, NERC recommends "that utilities in all states perform specific studies of the eclipse’s impact of solar photovoltaic power output on their systems and retain necessary resources to meet the increased electricity demand requirements."  In particular, NERC notes that generation and system operators may greater visibility into utility-scale solar projects than into behind-the-meter or distributed solar photovoltaic resources, highlighting the need to model all scales of solar development.

Following the 2017 eclipse, the next total solar eclipse is projected to cross North America on April 8, 2024.

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