Three Myths About Solar Energy and the Eclipse

August 15, 2017 | 11:00 am
Mike Jacobs
Senior Energy Analyst

Has anyone told you that the solar eclipse is a sign of trouble, or will cause the power to go out? Fear not. Despite what you might see with your own eyes, the experience is never as bad as the scary stories make it seem. This is as true today as it has been for thousands of years.

There is a long tradition of belief that solar eclipses are a disruption in the established order of things, even a theft. But advocates of renewable energy need not be afraid: a momentary break from the sun—and solar power generation—is not a sign that we need to rely on coal plants for a reliable energy supply. In fact, all people who prefer cleaner air and water should greet the solar eclipse without superstition or fear.

In the modern world, we have science to explain what is happening: our use of solar energy is not the downfall of civilization. Both the National Earth Science Teachers Association and the North American Electricity Reliability Corporation (NERC) provide calm and rational discussions of what will happen when the shadow of the moon passes across the United States.

While it is true that more of our electricity comes from solar energy now than in the past, NERC has thought this through and has found that there is no need to fear.

Here are three myth-busters to keep in mind.

Truth: Electricity supplies will not be disrupted by the eclipse

In April, the guardians of electric grid reliability, NERC, issued a report with the summary: A total solar eclipse is a predictable event that impacts solar generation over a short time period. The study showed no reliability impacts to bulk power system operations.

Actual disruptions of the electric power system are typically NOT those where the disturbance is predicted to the precise day and hour, and are most often caused by trouble with the wires, not one fraction of the generator supply.

Truth: We have experience with high levels of solar energy and an eclipse

In March 2015, a solar eclipse shadowed Germany and all of Europe, reducing sunlight 65-80%. (The eclipse was total in the North Sea.) With the advanced notice provided by astronomers, the changes needed in the electricity supply were planned and managed by the same grid operators that routinely make daily schedules and minute-by-minute adjustments for the power supply.

German operators took a detailed approach, using a range of flexible resources to respond to the expected fluctuation in sunshine and solar energy produced. Italian operators took a simpler approach, and directed 30% of solar producers to take an extended morning break from producing. In the UK, the weather was grey and cloudy, making for low levels of solar production in the hours around the eclipse.

Truth: Solar eclipses are not as rare as people think

Aztec calendar with sun god Tonatuih at center.
Credit: Anthony Stanley

It may seem this is a rare event when considering only one’s own point of view, or the history of a single place. That is, in my lifetime where I live, Boston, there has never been a total eclipse. (The last one seen in Boston was in 1959.)  The last total eclipse seen in Los Angeles was in 1724. But there is a total solar eclipse on earth roughly every 2 years. Check out this website for the 2015 and 2016 total eclipses you missed, as well as the next ones (July 2, 2019 and December 14, 2020), both of which will reach southern Argentina and Chile.

People pay attention to the sun for good reason. Among the natural systems that provide clean air, fresh water and a livable climate, the sun is critically important. It is no coincidence that religions describe over 100 gods connected with the sun, and that at the dawn of the modern era, astronomers describing the solar system were killed as heretics by defenders of church orthodoxy.

Today, we can resist the fear that “the sun won’t shine” used to attack renewable energy. When the old guard points to the sun overhead and tells you the eclipse means there will punishment for those who dare to think new thoughts, be confident. The comings and goings of the sun are now predictable. The power supply is always prepared for swings of more sudden losses than this—those that come from man-made, not natural, plant failures.