Distributed solar energy systems can play an important role in increasing the resilience of the national grid.

When it comes to energy and electricity, you’ve probably heard the word “sustainability” used in the energy sector. To the Department of Energy, this means a power system with the ability to prepare for and adapt to changing conditions and recover quickly from disruptions.

Solar energy can play an important role in increasing the resilience of the national grid. Instead of a single main generator powering a large area, distributed solar systems such as rooftop and community solar panels can increase the overall resilience of the grid and the communities it serves.

Grid-based resilience

Energy comes from a variety of sources – fossil-based generators powered by coal or natural gas have been the standard for the last century. Solar energy now offers an accessible, low-cost source of electricity that is well-suited to the clean energy economy of the 21st century.

For solar to provide resiliency, grid operators need tools such as battery storage, demand management and load switching to ensure reliable power. The hardest part is figuring out when to use these tools. This requires real-time knowledge of how much energy solar resources are producing at the moment, as well as how much energy they will produce in the future, known as forecasting. The Department of Energy recently completed the first Solar Forecasting Award to help commercialize tools to help forecast solar generation, and is investing in tools and models that continue to improve communication between solar generators and grid operators so they have accurate and timely information to effectively do your job.

The Department of Energy is also working on microgrids with lots of solar power. These smaller grids, which often include renewable energy sources such as solar in combination with a battery, can be disconnected from the main grid and run autonomously when the main grid is down. Microgrids help increase overall network resilience by limiting the number of customers affected by outages and enable faster system response and recovery, reducing the threat of man-made or natural disasters and keeping communities safe and secure.

Grid-forming inverters, which automatically coordinate inverter-based resources and other resources to maintain grid power, are also important for grid resilience. These new technologies require constant innovation and research, so we created a consortium to UNIFI these different stakeholders. In the future, grid-forming inverters are expected to allow solar-plus-storage systems to restart the grid after outages without the aid of more traditional forms of power generation.

Focus on communities

New research expands the definition of resilience to communities served by the electric grid. Increasing the amount of solar energy on the grid and ensuring its availability increases the resilience of society, helping to relieve the energy burden and providing clean, reliable local electricity.

This idea of ​​community energy resilience is at the heart of our Renewables Advancing Community Energy Resilience (RACER) funding opportunity. Several projects totaling $25 million will be selected later this year to support innovative public energy planning methods and demonstrate technologies that can improve energy resilience in response to the impacts of climate change and extreme weather events. These events often cause massive equipment failures and infrastructure damage, especially in distribution networks that directly serve communities.

Electricity provides vital services that are integrated into almost every corner of our economy and communities: lighting at night for safety, communication services for emergency services, refrigeration of food and medicine, and clean water and sanitation. To achieve far-reaching impact, RACER projects will involve multiple stakeholders—utilities, municipal planners, emergency responders, community groups, and others—to ensure the electricity needs of all community members are addressed.

The future of sustainability

Through RACER and other DOE efforts, new and innovative approaches to public energy planning and new clean energy technologies will be developed to reduce the impact of power outages on essential services and increase the ability to withstand and quickly recover from extreme weather events.

As the amount of grid-connected solar continues to grow, sustainability at both the grid and community levels remains an important priority for the Department of Energy. The Solar Energy Technology Authority aims to research and develop a resilient grid that can handle increased solar power as we transition to a decarbonized energy system, ensuring that solar technology improves the grid’s ability to keep the lights on.

Garrett Nielsen is the Deputy Director of the Solar Energy Technology Office (SETO) at the US Department of Energy.

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