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Flexible Grid, Renewable Energy Offer Hope For Future

August 14, 2003, was a dark day in U.S. history – in a lot of different ways.

It started off as a quiet Thursday.  Then a single tree limb in Ohio came crashing down, touching off a power outage which cascaded across eight states and parts of Canada, leaving 50 million Americans in the Northeast in the dark.  Commuters were stranded.  Businesses closed.  People sweltered in the heat.  And the U.S. economy took a huge beating, losing an estimated $10 billion.

And to think all it started with a single tree limb.

What have we learned 10 years after the largest blackout in U.S. history?  Well, for one thing, solar power and other renewables are more important than ever when it comes to our nation’s energy security and grid reliability. 

This week, the Department of Energy (DOE) and White House Council of Economic Advisors issued a new report highlighting the dangers of an aging grid.  Among other things, the report stresses the importance of “grid resilience” to help mitigate disruptions created by climate change and other factors.  As an industry, we look forward to working with the White House, DOE and Congress to leverage ways that solar can add to the grid’s resiliency and overall long-term effectiveness.

Today’s grid is a 20th century engineering marvel.  But here’s the rub: this is the 21st century – and the world, along with our electrical needs, is changing rapidly.  Today, the U.S. grid is plagued by aging equipment, an outdated distribution layout and periodic peak overloads.  It’s also been heavily dependent on fossil fuels, which have contributed dramatically to climate change.

Modernizing today’s grid is a huge and complex undertaking.  But great challenges also present great opportunities.  It’s time for America to embrace the idea of flexible grids, which will better meet our nation’s electricity needs and take into account the growing use of clean, renewable energy sources such as solar.

The expanded use of distributed generation from solar and wind is one important way to make the grid more effective and efficient in the future.  Under the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, Congress provided funds to encourage the development of a so-called “smart grid,” allowing utilities to better predict and meet electricity demand.

But we also need to develop a flexible grid, allowing power to move seamlessly from where it’s generated to where it’s actually used.   Additionally, a flexible grid allows utilities to ramp up and down between renewables (when conditions are favorable for their use) and hydro or gas-fired generators (when conditions are not). 

While several obstacles to this type of distribution system still have to be worked out – such as the integration of regional transmission networks – these problems are not insurmountable.  But addressing these issues in a comprehensive way is important if we’re going to have a modern, flexible, stable grid which better serves American consumers and businesses in the future.

As more and more nuclear and coal plants are mothballed, America’s solar energy industry is doing its part to make up for some of that lost generating capacity.  Today, more than 30 utility-scale, clean energy solar projects are under construction – utilizing both concentrating solar power (CSP) and photovoltaic (PV) technologies – putting thousands of electricians, steelworkers and laborers to work, while also helping to reduce carbon emissions from power plants.  These facilities, along with rooftop solar on homes, businesses and schools, will generate electricity for generations to come.

Presently, there’s more than 8,500 megawatts (MW) of cumulative solar electric capacity installed in the U.S. – enough to power more than 1.3 million American homes.  What’s more, in the first quarter of 2013, nearly half of all new generating capacity added to the grid was solar.  All totaled, it’s expected that more than 5,300 MW of new solar electric capacity will come online this year.  In addition, innovative solar heating and cooling systems are offering American consumers cost-efficient, effective options for meeting their energy needs, while lowering their utility bills.

Solar now employs nearly 120,000 Americans at more than 5,600 companies, most of which are small businesses spread across the United States, making solar one of the fastest growing industries in America.  Part of this amazing growth is attributed to the fact that the average cost of a solar system has dropped by nearly 40 percent over the past two years.

Simply put, solar is critically important to our nation’s energy security and economic security – and we’re doing our part to fight climate change, too. 

Today, the technology exists to finally put America on the road to a clean energy future.  We know the way.  But as a nation, do we have the will?  One thing’s for certain: we don’t have 10 more years to find out.

Rhone Resch, SEIA President and CEO

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