Is Distributed Solar Energy Disrupting the Grid?
Utilities sometimes claim that the rapid growth in infirm solar power is disrupting their practices and grid stability and that distributed solar customers are free riding in the grid. Is that true?
In the US, for instance, solar energy developers in the distributed rooftop solar segment have accused established utilities of deliberately refusing net metering connections to customers who want to go solar and of trying to coax the local and federal government into not disbursing solar tax rebates. One utility in the sunny state of Arizona proposed levying a $50 monthly grid interconnection fee for customers with a rooftop PV system.
However, is there any truth to what the utilities are saying? After all, solar is an intermittent source of energy, and homes with solar PV systems must depend on the grid when the sun is not available (energy storage still being in its infancy).
The answer is not simple. The grid is highly complex and depends on the correct functioning of several components – such as conductor cables, transformers, relays, energy management systems etc. Also, power is not really stored – generation and consumption need to be constantly matched. Keeping the grid running therefore is difficult, requires expertise and incurs a cost.
Is Solar Energy a Good Solution?
Now, if suddenly all customers were to go solar, utilities would not just lose their profits (which, of course they don’t like), but they would also be unable to recover the costs incurred in running baseload plants and in maintaining the grid infrastructure. And this could lead to a vicious circle: as the utilities become more cash strapped, their ability to keep baseload power stations running will diminish, which will lead to a more unreliable grid. In the process, they will probably have to raise power tariffs.
This will further draw away customers who seek cheaper energy, and pull them towards alternative forms of energy (such as solar), which would lead to further drops in the utilities’ cost recovery. This has been called the “utility death spiral”.
And yet, there is no doubt that rooftop PV systems (and utility scale solar power plants) are a critical step towards achieving energy security and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Therefore at this point, the real question is – who should pay for the maintenance of the grid? Should the responsibility fall on solar project owners, or should utilities find alternative means of funding the expenses?
To read more about solar vs. the utilities, click here.