The Department of Energy is set to provide $36 million in funding to a handful of research projects that aim to integrate solar energy more deeply into the electricity grid, as a way to prevent power outages from natural disasters and cyber attacks as well as get the grid up and running again more quickly afterwards.
In the press release, the DOE notes that even small, short-term blackouts can lead to major losses in the economy. In total, blackouts can lead to huge financial losses, previously estimated at $18 to $70 billion annually.
Utilities, as well as the federal and local government, realize that prompt electricity restoration is of crucial economic importance, but restoration efforts are typically slowed down by limited resources. And their efforts go way beyond solar backup generators and portable solar panel systems.
These new projects funded by the DOE look to solve these issues by enabling electricity grid operators to more quickly detect defects in the grid – both physical and computer-based – and then use solar electricity to recover from the outages more quickly.
US Secretary of Energy Rick Perry said, “These projects will work to give solar technologies greater resiliency as they are integrated into our electric grid. A reliable electricity grid is essential to our national and economic security, and the everyday lives of American people.”
The ten projects, most of which are based in universities, focus on new technologies for cyber-security and communications, inverters, and automated controls. While the focuses are all unique, the main goal of each project is the same: creating new tools and operations that will enable solar energy to enhance grid resilience during outages, especially at key locations such as hospitals and emergency response centers.
North Carolina Sate University, for example, is designing a new modeling tool that can determine the most cost-effective mix of renewables to restore power during an outage, as well as how to best engage residential and commercial solar in these situations.
The University of Oklahoma is building a network of intelligent sensors that can communicate with the electricity distribution grid and then detect and isolate outages, using solar energy to help restore power.
These projects aren’t the first time solar has been seen as a resource during grid blackouts. The EPA, National Renewable Energy Lab, and other organizations have seen the potential for years. A 2014 report from NREL noted that distributed solar systems (which includes residential roof-top solar) could supply electricity during grid outages, but their ability to do so is hampered by current technology, which isn’t designed to work when the grid is down.
In 2017, the Lawrence Livermore National Lab began a project to figure out how to use distributed energy resources (like residential and commercial roof-top solar) for restoration after power outages.
Under the current system, in the extremely rare case of a system-wide outage, grid operators must reboot the entire electricity grid from scratch, a manual process that uses small generators to bring larger generators back online. The whole process is time-consuming and very challenging, as they must perfectly balance supply and demand.
Researchers at Lawrence Livermore are looking into using solar and other distributed resources to create microgrids that would act as these small generators, helping to bring these larger power sources back on the grid.
Similar to the EPA’s new project, researchers are looking to data analytics, machine learning, and new communication strategies to learn which areas of a grid are most at risk for an outage, as well as how to use solar and other distributed resources to bring everything back online. And by using these new strategies, researchers hope to cut restoration time from days to hours.
Unlike the EPA’s project, which is focused on grid resiliency, most homeowners who install solar are focused on cost savings. Having power during outages is a small factor for most. In fact, almost all residential solar installations aren’t setup to provide electricity during outages. Instead, they’re designed to automatically disconnect from the grid and stop producing electricity.
Using your own roof-top solar during grid outages requires either a special inverter that can disconnect from the utility and still provide power to your home or an energy storage system during an outage. However, high cost still keeps batteries out of the hands of most homeowners in the US.
This is changing quickly though, as battery prices continue to fall and utility prices continue to increase. While the residential solar battery market is still in nascent stages, it’s growing wildly. The third quarter of 2018 saw 61.3 MW of energy storage deployed, 2x as much as Q3 2017.
As battery prices continue to fall, we’ll certainly see a tipping point where they become financially viable for the majority of the US, just like we’ve seen with solar over the last decade. At that point, batteries become both a cost-saving measure as well as battery back-up during outages.