Newsletter: Solar power has a wildfire problem

Turns out solar panels are not great at coping with historic wildfires blotting out the sun with smoke.

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Solar power excels at certain things: making electricity while the sun shines, being cheaper to build than coal plants are to run, etc.

But it turns out solar panels are not great at coping with historic wildfires blotting out the sun with smoke.

A new analysis from California’s record-busting 2020 wildfire season tracks just how big a dent the sooty skies made in solar production, Emma Foehringer Merchant reports.

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It’s not good news:

  • In the first two weeks of September, solar generation on California’s power grid dropped 30 percent below the summer average.
  • In the early weeks of October, California’s daily solar output dropped as much as 20 percent compared to the same dates in 2018 and 2019, according to BloombergNEF analyst Brianna Lazerwitz.
  • One solar plant in the Central Valley saw annual output drop 6 percent below the average due to fire impacts.

This has worrisome implications both for individual solar plant business models and for long-term planning in solar-heavy grids. As Emma put it:

The overall impact of wildfires on the clean energy industry remains as hazy as last year’s smoky skies, largely because little research has been done on the problem.

All of this is layered with uncertainty about how exactly climate change alters what’s normal. 

But if 2020’s fire season proves to be a harbinger of things to come, and solar generation regularly dips 30 percent below expected levels for weeks at a time, that’s something folks need to plan for.

But you could buy something for that…

Temporary drop-offs in renewable production are one of the precise situations animating the long-duration storage sector. 

  • That’s the cadre of entrepreneurs hoping to store clean electricity so cheaply, for so long, that a grid can ride through seasonal or wildfire-related dips with aplomb.

You may have seen David Roberts’ Battery Week/Fortnight/Month on Canary Media. Now he’s back with an overview of long-duration storage.

David tackles the question of just how cheap and effective these emerging technologies need to be to add value to a system that already has cheap lithium-ion batteries and cheap clean power plants.

That’s a crucial question to answer. Investors are betting millions of dollars on companies that promise huge breakthroughs but in practice sell incremental improvements over current technologies.

Speaking of current storage technologies, a power company in the Philippines is building a truly massive fleet of batteries in anticipation of that country’s renewables build-out. I’ve got that story here.

(Image: California Wildfires“by Justobreathe is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Julian Spector is an editor at Canary Media and reports on the rise of clean energy. He worked at Greentech Media for nearly five years, and before that he reported for CityLab at The Atlantic.