Eppler: Rooftop solar panels help improve the climate by reducing the need for fossil fuels
I am writing in response to a guest column by Alan Forbes entitled “Solar Panels Should Not Be Allowed in Historic District.” (Opinion, January 25). With all due respect to Mr. Forbes, much of what he writes is simply incorrect and a misunderstanding of solar energy and the operation of the electricity grid in the region.
Every kilowatt-hour produced by a solar array connected to the distribution system will be used to provide power to someone – whether it is the homeowner if they are using electricity for some household need, or a neighbor, whether it is the house next door or several doors down – who is using the electricity at the time the power is produced Solar. The energy produced from solar energy compensates for the need to produce the same amount of energy through other means. The more solar energy is produced, the less energy is needed from those other sources.
All of us in New England, if we are connected to our local utility company, are in turn connected to the New England regional energy system. Power plants within this system serve the aggregate electricity demand of the New England region rather than specific individual customers. The generated electricity is then transmitted through the transmission system to distribution facilities, which in turn deliver the power to homes, businesses and other end users. While it may be theoretically possible to trace energy from a single source to where it is consumed, it’s really not a worthwhile practice — other than for those whose job it is to keep the grid in balance: making sure energy is in demand everywhere. The circuit, where that demand fluctuates during the day, can be met by power and the ability to supply that power to those circuits. If, as Forbes predicts, all of Portsmouth’s roofs are equipped with solar panels, the energy produced will offset the need for power coming from the Seabrook Nuclear Generating Station. Since this plant is connected to the grid by several high-voltage transmission lines, it will be consumed in another area of New England thus reducing the need for fossil-fueled power.
Mr. Forbes is simply wrong when he writes that solar power will make no difference to the amount of electricity generated by other sources, especially gas turbines. Gas turbine power plants connected to the regional system operate regularly as “periodic” or “peaking” plants. Bike power plants, including gas turbines, are typically dispatched by grid operators to adjust their output based on real-time demand for electricity. During periods of high demand, these plants can be turned on quickly to provide additional power, and can be scaled back or shut down during periods of low demand.
This property makes them well-suited to respond to changes in electricity demand, which can fluctuate throughout the day. Accordingly, increased deployment of rooftop solar energy unambiguously contributes to reducing the use of fossil fuel generation – including gas turbines – during daylight hours when solar energy production is at its peak. By offsetting the need for electricity generated from fossil fuels such as natural gas, solar energy reduces carbon emissions and reliance on non-renewable resources. In fact, the growth of solar energy production in New England is an important factor responsible for the recent retirement of many coal-burning plants in the region and one of the reasons contributing to the questionable economic viability and continued operation of the last coal-fired plant. In the bow.
This does not negate the existence of problems with rooftop solar. Solar energy is an intermittent resource: it only produces energy when the sun is shining. At all other times, the rooftop solar home derives its energy from the grid and fossil fuel resources. A better solution, which needs to be encouraged, is to combine rooftop solar with battery storage, so that the extra energy produced during the day can be stored and used to power household needs when the sun is not shining. Hopefully this will become more common as battery storage prices continue to fall – or as more people own electric vehicles and can tap into their batteries in the evening.
In short, the story of solar initiatives in Portsmouth, both in the historic district and more broadly, is a positive one and certainly beneficial for our future.
Gary Epler of Portsmouth is the former principal regulatory counsel for Unitil Corp. Prior to Unitil, he was General Counsel for the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission. He is currently consulting with several environmental organizations. He has over forty years of experience in the electric and gas utility industry. The opinions expressed here are his own.
This article originally appeared on the Portsmouth Herald: Eppler: Rooftop solar helps improve the climate and reduces the need for fossil fuels