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With Proliferation of Solar Panel Systems, California Works to Update Its Electrical Grid

Friday, March 25th 2011 10:47 AM
By GetSolar Staff.
With Proliferation of Solar Panel Systems, California Works to Update Its Electrical Grid  As states move to increase the amount of energy derived from renewable energy sources, policymakers face the unenviable task of figuring out how to upgrade electrical grids that were designed to work with large-scale power plants.

In California, the state is grappling with the challenge as hundreds of thousands of solar panel systems go online. With power flowing both to and from homes now, the amount of electricity coursing through the state's grid is often strained, the San Diego Union-Tribune reports. Moreover, when clouds pass overhead, the amount of electricity generated comes to a stop, adding another layer of complexity for those tasked with monitoring the grid.

Nonetheless, the industry is working on how best to incorporate the increasing number of photovoltaic systems going online. "There are tons of researchers working on this stuff," said Molly Sterkel, an analyst who works on ways to incorporate solar power into the electrical grid. In an effort to tackle the problem, the California Public Utilities Commission plans to spend $50 million over the next few years to research better ways to incorporate solar power into the grid.

The U.S. Department of Energy is also helping fund research, giving $42 million in financing toward the goal during this fiscal year. Currently, California has 800 megawatts of installed photovoltaic power, but the state hopes to have that number rise over 300 percent over the next few years. "We're moving from an abstract problem … to a pressing need to maintain grid reliability," said California Public Utilities Commission president Michael Peevey.

For its part, San Diego is one of the leading solar regions in the U.S.; San Diego Gas & Electric, a utility based in Southern California, asserts that more than 77 percent of its circuits have solar panels on them. In total, some 12,000 photovoltaic systems generate nearly 100 megawatts of clean energy in the California enclave.

By 2020, California wants its utilities to derive a larger portion of their energy from clean sources; with the installation of more solar panel systems, there will be times when homes create more energy than they will need. Typically, these periods occur during the spring and fall months, when the temperature is relatively comfortable, the sun is shining and utility use is low.

On the other hand, partly cloudy days pose problems because the energy that solar panel systems generate can change in a matter of seconds, rising during sunny periods and falling precipitously when a cloud passes overhead. To tackle the issue, researchers are working to better forecast consumer behaviors, find alternative energy storage solutions and understand how the grid works on a more granular level.

For example, researchers affirm that electric vehicles are becoming more popular in the state; while that is good news for the environment and carmakers, it poses a unique challenge for the electric grid because those cars will need to be charged - and usually during peak hours instead of during the day when solar panel systems generate the most electricity. According to researchers, consumers are essentially using the electric grid like a giant battery.

"At some point, the grid will not be able to accommodate that," said SDG&E chief engineer of smart grid Tom Bialek. Though they face challenges, policymakers are confident that technological advancements - especially in solar battery research - can help better regulate the grid, incorporating solar power with fewer negative externalities.

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