Keep It Classy US Solar Industry

Jaw-Dropping News In The Solar Versus Fossil Fuels Debate

Solar panels could destroy U.S. utilities, according to U.S. utilities

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Solar power and other distributed renewable energy technologies could lay waste to U.S. power utilities and burn the utility business model, which has remained virtually unchanged for a century, to the ground.

Is this the direction the US solar industry media is going…. incendiary click-bait to dumb down the debate on the energy transition?

Is it an, “If it works on Facebook, let’s take it to the more professional social media markets, forums and energy sector trade groups” tactic? These articles and the language they contain, are only one step shy of the low value, anything goes… “Two men were walking. You won’t believe what happened next!” trash populating Facebook feeds to gain clicks and advertising revenue.


However, reading between the lines of this post…EPA’s Clean Power Plan and Reliability
Assessing NERC’s Initial Reliability Review, one can see… whether frequency, “inertia” or Vars (Voltage-ampere reactance), all are reliability issues that can be addressed with technology improvements in the system.

Kudos to the PV industry are in order for taking a proactive and helpful step in addressing power system and Independent System Operators (ISO) concerns. But these technological fixes came out of the European solar market and R&D efforts, with no need for in-your-face fan fair, as is now being played out with click-bait in the U.S.

In my continuous efforts to draw back the curtains of the large generators’ token “Ace up the sleeve” wild card claims about “inertia”, frequency and Vars, which yes does happen, European companies such as SMA (an inverter manufacturer now suffering due to the regulatory and economic conditions in the EU) released White Papers on the topic and the incorporation of the technology.

Further, the U.S. ERCOT grid, notably through their CREZ transmission project, to intelligently incorporate Wind into their 60-80GW system; and Southern Africa’s grid, put to its limits due to generation “undersupply”, load shedding, vast distances between generation and load centers, HVDC/HVAC multiple point integration, as well as general poor maintenance protocols, have implemented grid level technologies, such as Reactance Compensation, SVCs, etc., successfully.

Can we move on with it now?

The truth of the matter is, the complexity of the regulated and unregulated electric markets, as well as with an infinite level of vertical and horizontal integrations of U.S. “utilities”, there are no electric systems in the world by which to draw clear comparisons to the overall machine that is the U.S. Grid. I often draw comparisons to Germany and Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), based on system capacities, well planned renewable integration, and insulation from neighboring systems.

But, given the complexity of the ERCOT managed system itself, this is a tenuous at best effort, highly dependent upon others to have more than a rudimentary understanding of both systems. I have done similar with that of South Africa to ERCOT and/or Germany, given there is much that could be learned by the South Africans, so as to streamline their efforts and hopefully not repeat “mistakes” [past best practices] we in the U.S. or Europe have already learned to overcome.

Likewise, I have been checked accordingly in my perspectives about natural gas (NG) generators in Europe as comparable to their incorporation in the U.S. under much different conditions. And I always appreciate those telling me, “Hold on a second, that informed understanding is missing X, Y or Z consideration.”

Comparisons to the U.S. are just too difficult to draw, especially when advocacy originates from only one or two energy technologies or sectors. And whether it is the large generation industries; i.e. coal or nuclear, or the U.S. residential [distributed] solar or battery interests, I’m willing to put my neck on the line to call out either side’s bluffs. My views as expressed are often assumed to be against solar technology, but that is far from the truth. I am more concerned with implementing the technology in the fastest, most cost effective manner possible to reduce the dollar spent per unit carbon dioxide reduction made. In the U.S., these overall global efforts towards mitigating climate change, unfortunately hampered and stymied by “green consumerism”, and my mention of it makes me few friends in the U.S. solar sector.

Thus, this click-bait article about NG “peakers”, formally known as Single Cycle Gas Turbines (SCGTs) in the energy industry, is no different. And my main argument about U.S. distributed solar is largely, their vocal claims and rapidly growing influence within the State and Federal regulatory systems, is more hype and playing on emotional sympathies to their cause, than actual numbers based results.

The rapidly evolving situation in the U.S. as presented in this article is substantially different than the claims being argued. The “peaker” fleet can be modified at little expense, just as could the the wind farms. The bluff of large generation advocates has been called, as it should be. To be honest, watching the forum and discussions over the past couple years, this is one of the first times I have heard strong leveraging of the SCGT grid frequency support argument. But, be it as is, an issues that needs and will be addressed, let us discuss briefly their substantial influence in the U.S. energy market.

Without the effects of the natural gas peaker fleet and continuous low U.S. NG costs, coal would not be declining as fast as it is. At about 6 Gigawatts (GW) of installed solar capacity (as of 4th quarter 2014) in the US, photovoltaics would be struggling to offset a few coal plants at best, with an average unit in the 700 Megawatt capacity range.

Hawaii’s island grids, operating on diesel and oil fueled generation and electricity to the customers meter at approximately 3-times the average cost in the “lower 48” states [U.S. Electricity “Grid”], are hardly a comparison to the U.S. “Grids” as a whole. Following the rise of liquefied natural gas (LNG) global markets and development as I have, I question whether Hawaii has even built an LNG receiving terminal from which to be drawing a comparison with NG “peakers” in the first place. If anything, large scale wind turbines and farms, and their 70 GW of installed capacity, bear more substance from which to elicit an “Thanks, job well done” pat on the back in our low carbon energy transition, than does the distributed PV [and battery] sector. One could further argue convincingly, “utility” scale solar farms are responsible for approximately one-half of the installed capacity, as well as a greater proportion of actual production and integrated into the “Grid” with fewer problems.

But even wind power’s effects on the decline of coal production and fleet reductions could not have been accomplished without the “peaker” fleet and continuously low NG prices. Their [NG “peakers”] effects are being felt within the nuclear industry as well, through the same financial mechanisms, but not as definitively linked to the Clean Power Plant (CPP) regulatory impacts.

What concerns me about the language of this article is that it will be increasingly deployed within the professional forums and energy sector trade publications. It is used, because it is effective in drawing up emotionally biased support, where facts come secondary to impact, notably of political nature. Extreme fringes have employed similar for years, and yes, I have too in years past. But in hindsight, nothing of great benefit came out of my efforts, and rarely has “dumbing down” the discussion advanced us as a society, regardless the cause.

I think we, as knowledgeable professionals in the energy sector, owe it to one another and to the laymen, Joe and Jane Q. Prosumer, to not sink to such levels of discourse. There are many challenges to be overcome in our energy transition, and we should maintain the high ground as we work towards rising to the occasion.

Hey, I look at it this way, energy is boring. Discussions of energy are not “sexy” in the slightest. My passion for it puts people to sleep! However, if the most boring creation of mankind, “C-SPAN took a stand against click-bait. You won’t believe what happened next.“, then so can we.

And just remember, the crowning achievement, and what [I] will miss most about John Stewart stepping away from The Daily Show, is the organization devoted enormous staff resources to boring themselves to tears watching C-SPAN (1, 2, 3, 4… how many are there?!) and “FauxNews”, shifting, shorting and finally compiling it into parody. But one thing is certain, Jon Stewart ALWAYS kept it classy.


3 thoughts on “Keep It Classy US Solar Industry

  1. I have to agree with you. We cannot make energy decisions based on sexiness or emotions; that is part of why we now need radical energy changes.

    PS: Yet another african country is said to be now suffering from the oil curse (Ghana). Me thinks sensationalism of oil discovery and potential benefits hampered practical discourse.


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