Eclipse & The Grid

Rare event draws crowds, tests solar panels

Monday’s solar eclipse caught the attention of most of the country, from Madras, Oregon to Columbia, South Carolina. Thousands planned trips to “Eclipse Crossroads of America” around Carbondale, Illinois, where it was said to be best for viewing. But what happens to solar panels during a solar eclipse? The rapidly growing devices that help feed our electric grid rely on the sun’s rays for power generation. Well, during Monday’s eclipse (the first total eclipse in the U.S. since 1979, when solar panels were scarcely used and almost zero were actually connected to the grid) solar panels managed to sustain themselves effectively.

Although the event only lasted about three hours at any given location—with even the most directly positioned locations only experiencing full darkness for 20 or so minutes—large solar arrays and photovoltaic cells connected on commercial and industrial scales had to make extreme preparations. The electric grid appeared to weather the disruption easily. Many utilities had alternate supplies stored in preparation, such as lithium-ion battery storage, hydropower, or natural gas reserves. Other applied lessons Europe learned during its own 2015 eclipse to fill in gaps left by solar generation.

In solar-heavy California, for example, the state reportedly used gas plants and hydropower generators, because these are systems that can be brought online quickly in the case of an outage. The state also urged users to conserve energy during the eclipse, to ease the burden on the grid. As Pro’s Esther Whieldon reported , Eric Schmitt, California ISO’s vice president of operations, told reporters about 3,000 megawatts to 3,500 megawatts of solar generation stopped during the eclipse, but hydropower and natural gas power supplies filled in that gap. “We didn’t have any major challenges on the system, even minor challenges,” he said. “We’re very pleased with how smooth it went. All the resources performed the way they were supposed to perform.”

The PJM Interconnection, the grid operator for more than a dozen Mid-Atlantic and Midwestern states saw a decrease of about 520 megawatts utility scale solar during the eclipse, which is not even a drop in the bucket for the system that has 185,000 megawatts of power on call. Duke Energy estimates it saw a drop of 1,700 megawatts-worth of output from utility-scale solar generation in North Carolina.

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