This article cannot fully describe our electric grid, it would take a sizable technical book few of you would care to read, however, some believe they can improve the grid without having even a cursory understanding of what it is our how it works.
Proponents of grid scale solar tend to be in that group, not the solar developers who build these massive installations, they know exactly what they’re doing, it’s those promoting “green” energy to transition our world to carbon free power from the sun and wind.
Some of the many obstacles to electric everything
The scale of what they have in mind, the required technical innovations not yet invented, things like power density which they don’t understand or haven’t heard of, the limited supply of rare earth elements necessary, the limited supply of knowledgeable and experienced linemen capable of doing the physical and often dangerous work of running high voltage cables across the country, and of course, the huge cost of the infrastructure necessary, no, none of this matters, just demand it and somehow it will appear.
Small scale solar can work – up to a point
Making electricity from the sun using solar photovoltaic (PV) panels is a great technology and has many applications where it’s a good choice. When you’re far from the grid or you have an outbuilding in need of some electricity, solar panels are an option. Low voltage electrical equipment that needs to be constantly recharged or even operated, can use solar cells. There’s a lot of outdoor lighting running on sunlight, you may have some at your home, but if you do it’s easy to think, why not run my whole house that way?
It’s the grid connection where the problem starts
A lot of homes now have solar panels on the roof, they’re expensive, but the government is spending your tax dollars to help those homeowners pay for them. It seems like a better idea for everyone to pay for their own solar panels if they want them, but this isn’t the worst of it, it’s the grid connection.
Power that’s up and down, on and off
The homes with solar panels are still connected to the grid, after all, at night they need electricity, too, so they use the power from the electric company. During the day, if it’s sunny, they may not need any more than the panels supply, but if it’s sunny all day and they get more than they need, it gets fed back into the grid. They have to be paid for their excess electricity, and the electric company has to absorb it into the grid, but the grid isn’t designed to use power from tens of thousands or more of variable electric generators. It’s made to use the steady power from conventional power plants because they have to supply highly regulated and reliable power to the entire country. Solar is neither steady nor reliable.
Power plants are necessary for baseload and variable demand
Solar doesn’t eliminate the need for conventional power plants, because solar can’t provide baseload power, the minimum amount of electricity necessary to run the country around the clock. Beyond baseload, the demand for electricity varies throughout the day and in response to weather like high heat or frigid temperatures. As demand rises and falls, power companies supply more or less electricity to adjust, on demand, as needed. Now, add solar into the mix, adding more electricity when no one is asking for it, supplying none when demand rises, and the power company is still required to adjust. Without conventional plants, they can’t. Unfortunately, the government has been increasing regulations on those plants making it impossible for them to operate at a profit and many huge plants have been prematurely shutdown with nothing to replace them. Our grid operator (see image at the beginning of this article), PJM Interconnection, has issued several warnings of grid instability due to lack of the resources necessary to respond to demand. Grid scale solar cannot replace the multiple Gigawatts of capacity removed.
PJM’s interconnection queue is composed primarily of intermittent and limited-duration resources. Given the operating characteristics of these resources, we need multiple megawatts of these resources to replace 1 MW of thermal generation.
What that means is because conventional power plants are being regulated out of existence and shut down before they need to be, no one is building more since strict regulations make them unprofitable from the start. The only replacements being planned are renewables with a tiny fraction of the conventional capacity being removed and a long lead time for construction.
As a result, the grid is weak and getting weaker and PA governor Shapiro wants more sun and wind. He either doesn’t understand or doesn’t want to.
Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard
But wait, there’s more. In Pennsylvania, Act 213, forces utilities to use more and more of these unreliable and intermittent energy sources like sun and wind:
Act 213 requires that electric distribution companies and electric generation suppliers include a specific percentage of electricity from alternative resources in the generation that they sell to Pennsylvania customers. The level of alternative energy required gradually increases
Keeping your lights on and refrigerator cold while supplying all of the rest of your electrical needs and making sure businesses, schools and hospitals have reliable power takes a back seat to green energy.
As PJM noted above, this transition away from fossil fuels takes more than a one to one replacement in capacity. According to PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:
Based on the current CFs (capacity factor), an energy transition toward renewables will require a massive infrastructure and nominal capacity to be built and installed. To replace the current fossil capacity that generates 4 TWe with solar PV and wind at a 1:1 ratio, we must install 12 TWe from these renewables. This estimate applies to a replacement-only scenario with no growth, also assuming that the 0.5 CF for fossil plants is all waste and not needed to provide peak load. For an expansion scenario, each 1 TWe of fossil fuel electricity displaced by 1:1 solar PV and wind would require 6.5 TWe from these renewables.
In other words, to replace fossil fuel with renewables assuming no growth in capacity, it requires 3 times the capacity removed. If we allow for growth, it takes 6.5 times in renewable capacity to replace the fossil fuel power taken offline and the capacity must grow in order to have sufficient power available to charge all of the electric vehicles the government is demanding we use. There isn’t enough land area, money or time to do this. What politicians and activists are promoting is impossible and simple math makes that clear.
As just shown, based on the multiples required, one coal plant shutting down of almost 1.5 Gigawatts (W.H.Sammis in Ohio for example), would require 4.5 Gigawatts of renewables to replace it. So, let’s see, one coal plant of 1.5 Gigawatts would require approximately 56 times the output of the 80 Megawatt grid scale installation proposed in Wattsburg. A little back of the napkin calculation, 56 times 1100 acres is 61,600 acres which is 96.25 square miles. So over 96 square miles of land covered in solar panels to replace one coal plant, just one, and they are shutting down quite a few. And this isn’t adding capacity, it’s just replacing what is shutting down.
So why do it? Follow the money
If you’ve followed me this far, you might be wondering why they’re doing this. Two words, government money. Using climate change as an excuse to spend billions, the government created a rush of startup companies grabbing the money available. There’s no actual demand for these grid scale installations, no one is running out and asking to have their property covered in solar panels, utilities are not looking for more ways to destabilize the grid and make it harder to deliver the reliable electricity you want, it’s driven by free money. Without these government subsidies for green energy none of these massive installations would be built, we could instead make real grid improvements and have all of the electric power we need. If grid scale solar worked as advertised and if people and utilities wanted it, subsidies would not be necessary.
Tax credits and more tax credits
This article is too long already, but to give you an idea of what these companies are after you can look here:
Then from the terribly named Inflation Reduction Act which does exactly the opposite and showers money on renewable energy there’s this:
These tax provisions need another article on their own so we’ll stop here.
It’s up to you to learn, stand up and speak up
Understanding what it takes to supply reliable electricity to everyone all day every day is a complex topic and our grid is not something very many people even think about, let alone understand. There are many great resources to take you as far down the rabbit hole as you care to go and for the technically inclined it’s fascinating, but if you can at least begin to see what we’re dealing with, we’ve made some progress.
To learn more, follow the links I’ve provided throughout this article. SHOW UP at the hearing on September 20th, 6PM in the Venango Township building and listen to what everyone says, what questions are asked and the answers given and ask a few of your own. Your voice and everyone’s voice is important. After all, it’s your community, don’t let developers from out of town determine your future.