A major obstacle slowing conversion to solar energy is the lack of adequate grid to move electricity from where it is generated to where it can be used.
Although I will mention only PV panels, the same problem also applies to wind turbines, which harvest solar energy indirectly.
Existing PV panels sometimes can produce more electricity than needed locally. But production of electricity must always exactly equal demand for it; otherwise, major problems with voltage or frequency could crash an entire grid.
The output from these PV panels must then be "curtailed," turned off until it can be used. The power that could have been generated is wasted.
This reduces the value of the PV panels, compared to what it would have been if they were allowed to produce electricity whenever it is daylight. This in turn reduces the incentive to invest in PV panels.
Even so, PV panels are still such a good investment that many entrepreneurs would like to install a lot more of them. But the limited availability of grid to handle their output makes this difficult to do.
It takes years for many large projects to get connected to the local grid. This slows down the world's ability to turn off generators powered by burning coal, gas or oil.
Delays are unfortunate, given the scientific consensus that the world needs to stop burning these fuels by 2050 — only 27 years from now.
Unlike PV panels, which can be mass produced efficiently and inexpensively, building additional grid is very difficult. Land for the grid's towers must be purchased or leased, and permits must be gotten.
In the United States this means dealing with a formidable array of federal, state, and local governments, each with its own rules and requirements. People with large investments in coal, oil, and gas therefore have many opportunities to clog up permitting, bringing lawsuits challenging governmental permitting decisions or financing local NIMBY ("not in my back yard") groups.
Ironically, lawsuits are sometimes based on the Environmental Protection Act or state equivalents. Claims that a grid will disturb an area's wildlife can be particularly effective at delaying a project. Delayed projects often do not get built because getting needed permits has gotten too expensive.
I say ironically, because if the world does not build enough grid during the next few decades, our environment, including its wildlife, will be devastated by an out of control climate.
Ultimately, grid will be a major deciding factor in saving the world from climate disaster. Solar energy is intermittent at the local level due to nighttime, bad weather, and seasonal variations. (In winter my PV panels produce only one fifth as much monthly electricity as in summer.)
Storing enough electricity for a whole winter would be impossibly expensive. Batteries might store enough power to get us through a night or maybe even a few days of bad weather. But winter will require us to eliminate the need for storage by connecting the entire planet into a single grid.
Winter in the northern hemisphere is summer in the southern. The sun is always shining on half the planet.
This worldwide grid is already being built, albeit by people who may not understand that this is what they are doing. They are just taking advantage of opportunities created by the low cost of solar energy and the possibility of transmitting electricity long distances by building larger grids.
But in the process, they are building the elements that will become a single worldwide grid when they are connected together.
Curtailment today is a major problem, but it is also an opportunity, since more green power is already available if we can figure out how to use it.
A worldwide grid will minimize the need for curtailing the output of PV panels, electricity which that grid can always transmit to areas where it is needed.
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. Read Professor Paul F. deLespinasse's Reports — More Here.
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