Solar energy steps up to save drought-strained California power grid
While solar power has shown itself to be renewable, cost-effective and carbon-free, it is its resiliency that is saving Californians during the state’s severe drought.
In what the American Geophysical Union dubs the “most severe drought in the last 1200 years,” California’s water levels have dropped to record-lows. In addition to forcing residents to cut their water intake, the lack of moisture has also placed a strain on California’s power grid. Between 10 and 20 percent of California’s energy supply comes from hydroelectric plants, which are powered by water from snowpacks in the northern region of the state.
With the snowpacks now eliminated by drought, California is on the verge of the largest reduction in hydroelectricity in 10 years, according to Steven Greenlee, spokesman for the California Independent Systems Operator, which monitors 80 percent of the state electric grid. The four-year drought has cut the state’s hydroelectric production by 36 percent, with dams in Central and Northern California now operating at a capacity of only 4,700 megawatts (MW), down from 7,400 MW.
While the drought, combined with record-high summer temperatures, has put an extraordinary amount of strain on the grid, it has managed to continue to meet demand, thanks in large part to the state’s recent renewable energy growth. To make up for hydro’s sub-par production, California state utilities added 2,300 megawatts of new electricity generation, 96 percent of which was from solar energy.
“The bottom line is, we have had less hydroelectricity,” says Greenlee, “but it has not impacted the operations or the reliability of the grid.”
In addition to being resilient to low water levels, photovoltaic solar panels actually perform better in the conditions that lead to drought. While increased temperatures tend to result in higher energy consumption as residents kick up their air conditioning, solar generation peaks on hot, sunny days, rising along with demand.
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