No, I’m not referencing the third novel of the Twilight series, much as that might interest the few millennial readers of my blog (and even some Gen Xers in my age bracket–I have admittedly read all of the books…), but rather the solar eclipse that gripped the nation on Monday. As usual in our era of 24-hour news channels and online live streaming, there was no way we could have missed the spectacle, even if we wanted to.
Being the good parent that I am, I had not purchased any eclipse glasses nor prepared at all in advance for my two girls to view the eclipse. So, my awesome husband built the DIY cereal box viewer on Monday morning for them to experience the “once in a lifetime” opportunity afforded by this event (never mind that there is another solar eclipse passing over North America in 2024). Of course, according to my husband, they just ended up borrowing eclipse glasses from one of their friends at the pool and spent about a second looking at it before restarting their sharks and minnows game.
Admittedly, I spent about two seconds myself viewing the eclipse through borrowed glasses from the guard who manages our building security. Looking at a black background with a sliver of sun peeking through the partial eclipse was not a riveting event beyond a couple of seconds. Definitely, something to check off my list, though—why not?
But it got me thinking about hype and how utilities have to plan for weather and solar events that at times don’t live up to their hype. And then, at times, there is no hype or preparation and utilities have to respond to a lack of accurate information—think of Sandy, Katrina, Rita, and now Harvey. With the 24-hour news cycle, we always hear about when utilities have outages from serious storms, but we almost never hear about when utilities mitigate a threat to their ability to deliver power – whether hyped or not.
In the case of Monday’s eclipse, utilities experienced no outages across the entire path despite losing thousands of megawatts of solar generation, according to media outlets like Bloomberg (thank you, Bloomberg, for your comprehensive reporting). Utilities could and did plan for the loss of solar power, which happens anytime the sun doesn’t shine. The back-up power generation used to cover this loss varied from location to location, but baseload power like hydro, coal, natural gas, and nuclear played their usual unsung “reliable” part in keeping the grid stable and providing electricity to hundreds of millions of Americans on a hot summer’s day. The trickier part comes when utilities can’t plan for a loss of generation from intermittent power like solar and wind – when the weather forecasts are wrong. Because of this possibility, reserve power generation must be available to back up these intermittent resources. Despite the hype about electricity storage, it is not yet economically viable on a large scale to smooth over the intermittency.
In the interim, while energy storage’s capabilities evolve, utilities use technology to help them manage the variability in wind and solar generation – they carefully monitor load through their SCADA systems (digitally based industrial control systems) and evaluate the need to switch to back-up power by relying on remote sensing of solar and wind generation. These technologies are enabled by utilities’ telecommunications networks or by telecommunications networks they lease from carriers (or a combination). Utilities increasingly use data analytics to forecast load based upon historical data, real-time grid sensors, weather forecasts, and other external data such as local sales of electric vehicles.
The bottom line – utilities plan for and carry out miracles of technology and engineering every day, with little fanfare and no hype. Thank you!