The Solar Eclipse and Our Electricity Supply: Why We've Got This Covered
By Laura Wisland
The Great American Eclipse, as many are calling it, is a big deal for both committed and casual star watchers alike. On Aug. 21, starting at approximately 9:15 a.m. PT, the moon will move in front of the sun to completely block its rays, leaving a swath of people across the U.S. in eerie and fantastic darkness for about two minutes. Totality!
A total solar eclipse happens about every 18 months, but most of the time the moon's shadow appears in remote places where very few are around to witness the spectacle. The coming August eclipse will be the first in the nation's history to completely occur over the continental U.S.
Given that the U.S., and especially states like California, are using more and more solar power to meet electricity needs, the prospect of a temporary moon shadow has caught the attention of electricity grid operators as well.
California currently receives more than eight percent of its electricity from large-scale photovoltaic (PV) and solar thermal plants. The state also has more than 5 GW of small-scale PV (rooftop solar) installed—meeting approximately two percent of electricity demand—and that number is growing rapidly. So, it's not surprising that the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) is looking into the effects the eclipse will have on generation that day.
CAISO expects generation from large-scale solar plants to start dropping around 9 a.m. and be reduced by about 64 percent at the height of the eclipse (assuming it's a clear morning and potential solar generation is not already reduced by cloud cover). Output from rooftop solar systems will also drop appreciably. Once the eclipse is over, it will take about 90 minutes for solar generation to return to its pre-eclipse level.
Why the eclipse is not a problem for the grid
So, is losing all that solar energy during the eclipse a big deal for the grid? Turns out, no. Grid operators routinely plan for events where major power sources or transmission lines are lost unexpectedly because of a storm or equipment failure. The eclipse is a rare, significant reduction in solar power, but because it is predictable, it is not like an unexpected failure or shut down.
Grid operators will have a range of options at hand while the sun takes a brief vacation. Since California had a wet winter, we can ramp hydropower up and down as needed. CAISO can also use natural gas generation to provide additional grid flexibility, though that fossil power would emit greenhouse gas emissions.
However, many clean energy nerds, including me, are hoping that we can back-fill the lost solar power by harnessing the power of our own energy flexibility and using less power during the two-hour eclipse window. The California Public Utilities Commission is asking all Californians to pledge to use slightly less electricity during the eclipse to reduce the need to rely more on fossil fuels like natural gas.
From the caleclipse.org website:
"While our utilities and grid operator have all the tools necessary to manage the grid during the eclipse, what if millions of Californians stepped in to allow our hard working sun to take a break, rather than relying on expensive and inefficient natural gas peaking power plants.
The 'Do Your Thing for the Sun' campaign is an effort to engage Californians and demonstrate that when we come together to do one small thing to reduce energy usage, we can have a major impact on our environment."
Take the pledge here.
CAISO and other grid operators around the country have been planning for the eclipse for months, so rest easy and enjoy the totality. (That is, of course, unless you happen to be on a solar-powered train with no brakes, in which case you should plan accordingly.)
Laura Wisland is a senior energy analyst and expert on California renewable energy policies with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
By Jacob Wallace
This story is published as part of StudentNation's "Vision 2020: Election Stories From the Next Generation" reports from young journalists that center the concerns of diverse young voters. In this project, working with Dr. Sherri Williams, we recruited young journalists from different backgrounds to develop story ideas and reporting about their peers' concerns ahead of the most important election of our lives. We'll continue publishing two stories each week over the course of September.
In the speech she gave at the People's Climate March in Washington in 2017, Jansikwe Medina-Tayac, then 15, told a crowd of thousands, "This [climate change] is not just an environmental issue. This is a race issue, this is an immigration issue, this is a feminist issue."
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Four years ago, Jacob Abel cast his first presidential vote for Donald Trump. As a young conservative from Concord, North Carolina, the choice felt natural.
But this November, he plans to cast a "protest vote" for a write-in candidate or abstain from casting a ballot for president. A determining factor in his 180-degree turn? Climate change.
Fractures Among Young Climate Conservatives<p>While young conservatives have united around the urgency of climate change, they remain divided over how to bring their concerns to the ballot box. Some embrace right-wing <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/biden-attacks-republican-convention/2020/08/24/434e5b46-e66d-11ea-970a-64c73a1c2392_story.html" target="_blank">attacks</a> painting Biden as a "tool of the left" and find his climate agenda "radical." Others can't find a way to justify voting for Trump, even if it means breaking with their party.</p><p>Patrick Mann from Orange County, California, voted for Trump in 2016. But today, he's leading Aggies for Joe at Texas A&M University and is co-founder of Texas Students for Biden. </p><p>Mann grew up watching wildfires ravage his home state, nearly forcing his family to evacuate in 2017. The GOP is failing to "meet the moment" for climate action, Mann said. He's hoping Biden will deliver on a promise to "<a href="https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/columnists/caucus/2020/01/06/joe-biden-democrat-president-iowa-caucus-restore-soul-our-nation/2806422001/" target="_blank">restore the soul of our nation</a>." </p><p>Taylor Walker from Pensacola, Florida, is also determined to make her voice heard on climate, including by casting her first-ever vote for president—but not for Biden.</p>
A False Equivalency<p>Young climate conservatives may fear climate denial and delayed climate action, but more than that, they fear the growing political momentum around the Green New Deal, the massive spending it entails and <a href="https://joebiden.com/climate-plan/" target="_blank">Biden's citing of it</a> as a "crucial framing for meeting the climate challenges we face."</p><p>Many don't want to split with their party to support a Democrat whose <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/09/03/757220130/joe-biden-on-bipartisanship-gun-control-and-regrets-over-inaction-after-a-traged" target="_blank">allegedly bipartisan intentions</a> they doubt. If stymieing what they consider a radical green agenda means re-electing a climate change denying president, so be it. </p><p>"I'm scared of climate change, but I'm also scared of the Green New Deal and what it means for America," said Ben Mutolo, a republicEN spokesperson and junior at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. </p><p>Mutolo felt encouraged by former Ohio Governor John Kasich's <a href="https://www.rollcall.com/2020/08/17/kasich-speech-to-democratic-convention-follows-years-of-building-conservative-credentials/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">appearance</a> at the Democratic National Convention, but he still struggles to see himself voting for Biden. Though the candidate paints himself as a <a href="https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2020-08-12/harris-biden-different-generation-similar-political-instinct" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">centrist,</a> Mutolo believes he's "cozying up to the ultra-progressive left." </p><p>Mutolo, who wants to see market-based climate solutions like a carbon tax, feels torn between a candidate whose climate plan relies on taking an "<a href="https://joebiden.com/environmental-justice-plan/#" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">All-of-Government approach</a>," and one with no efforts to reign in global warming at all. <span></span></p><p>Leiserowitz said he appreciated how a conservative might feel Biden's climate plan "doesn't jive with their limited government, free-market approach."</p><p>But he sees a strong distinction between voting for a presidential candidate with a <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/14/us/politics/biden-climate-plan.html" target="_blank">$2 trillion climate plan</a> that includes large renewable energy investments, which have <a href="https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/publications/politics-global-warming-april-2020/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">bipartisan support</a>, and a candidate trying "to take the country in the opposite direction, towards more fossil fuels."</p>
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