Grid Stability Issues of Enlarging Solar’s Makeup of Energy
Solar power is one of the things that will undoubtedly help to save our planet. Emissions from sources like fossil fuels and other carbon sources have only risen in many countries in the EU in recent years, particularly with Germany shuttering their nuclear plants, one of the largest clean sources of energy in the country. Solar is one of the areas they want to grow to make up this difference, but that presents a whole different set of problems. Solar is harmful to the environment in both manufacturing and disposal, as heavy metal contamination is a real problem. There’s no real recycling paradigm in place to deal with the panels once they reach their end of their lifespan. Most importantly, however, solar power is intermittent and doesn’t provide stable generation required for roughly 60% of all power produced (known as base load supply).
Roughly 60% of the peak grid demand must be base load and always available. This is to help prevent brown outs, or voltage drops across the transmission area. Nuclear, as a cheap base load source, is the only one that can offer this without emissions presently. Solar only produces power for roughly 7-8 hours of the day in the winter, and capacity factor can be as well as 5% of it’s peak production level during periods of cloudy weather. This makes for a poor direct base load source.
Potential Solutions to Solar Periodicity
Several solutions have been proposed for either storing solar energy, or producing it 24/7. One that we have probably all heard about at one time or another is storing grid electricity in batteries. There are numerous obstacles, technically, economically and practically with making this a reality. Economically storing energy is still outrageously expensive. Grid level storage (sufficient to augment usage of a small city for even a single day) would require more than the entirety of all Lithium battery production every year presently. This is equivalent to approximately $4 to 5 billion. Worse still, this asset would last less than 7 years with any functionality. Compare that to a nuclear reactor, which lasts upwards of 100 years producing energy for marginally cheaper than even solar in the first place, and there’s little cost incentive to use chemical storage at the present time.
Another option for energy storage is creating artificial dams and pumping the water up into the dam and sending it back down later to meet demand. There are some issues with this approach, though it is cheaper than chemical storage. Dams are geographically limited in their locations, as you need mountains and they need to be close enough together to store large amounts of water. Many regions do not have this available. In addition, they are usually expensive, though long lasting. Operating an artificial dam is just as expensive as a normal dam, which is roughly the same cost to operate as a nuclear plant. However, they do last a long time. Typically at least 80 years. This allows for greater time to recover the roughly $5 billion an artificial structure would cost to store significant amounts of energy produced via renewables.
So far there’s been limited success finding a real solution to base load sources, and as a result, countries that choose to not pursue nuclear for a green base source of electricity are suffering with high CO2 emissions and pollution. For the time being, this is the best option we have available. Though there’s potential to be found in these storage methods, there’s little present technology to be exploited. This is somewhere we hope to make headway in the future, pressuring governments to fund this kind of research and find real solutions. In addition, breeder reactors would be able to burn the spent fuel of today’s base load source, but with no waste at the end. This is what we hope to see going forward.