Currently, America’s transmission grid—the power lines and electrical equipment that bring us electricity—has very few devices that store power from renewable clean energy sources such as solar and wind. This is hindering the deployment of these energy sources and limits their usefulness.
Consider solar … the sun shines during the day, lots of electricity is produced on rooftops with solar photovoltaic panels, yet there’s almost no ability on the grid to store excess power to be used at night.
This shortcoming also hampers wind generators. This past spring for the first time ever, we saw a situation in the Columbia River Basin in Oregon and Washington where wind generators were told, ‘No thanks, we don’t need your power.’ Why? Because there was so much snowmelt coursing down from the Rocky Mountains generating surplus electricity in the Columbia and Snake River hydro dams. The giant utility running the dams, the Bonneville Power Administration, told the wind generators no thanks. The wind was howling at the same time and a lot of electrical potential was lost.
If better energy storage systems existed, this could have been averted and maybe power not needed at the moment could have been held until it was needed. The owners of the wind generators were unable to capitalize on their investment when they were counting on it.
What’s needed is something like giant rechargeable batteries that can absorb excess power on sunny or windy days. The nation’s electric utilities are slow to respond to this problem but Earthjustice is leading the way with solutions in California.
Earthjustice attorney Will Rostov is working with the California Public Utilities Commission to get policies to develop and build the needed energy storage systems.
Meanwhile in Hawai‘i, Earthjustice attorney Isaac Moriwake has gotten that state’s PUC to reduce obstacles to renewable energy contributions. Utilities across the country worry that inputting a lot of rooftop-generated solar energy on sunny days into their grid could cause it to break. They’ve imposed an arbitrary limit on rooftop solar generation of 15 percent of the peak load on the local power lines. That has blocked rooftop solar installations, particularly in Hawai‘i where solar energy is growing rapidly.
Working with the Hawaiian utilities and the renewable energy industry, Moriwake has pushed all parties to move beyond the 15 percent level and allow more rooftop solar systems to connect to the grid. These first steps may lead to even more policy and grid improvements so utilities can accept bigger contributions from rooftop solar.
Moriwake is also working with the state PUC to create a system whereby homeowners can install rooftop solar panels and pay for them over time via their electric bill while they save energy. This removes the upfront costs of rooftop solar, which is another barrier to its wider adoption.
These are leading edge efforts aimed at easing the way for increases in rooftop solar and other clean energy. The sooner we get there, the better.