Protecting our Nation’s Energy Supply with Distributed Energy Generation
A resilient economy relies on cheap, abundant energy that is secure against low-probability, high-impact events like storms, earthquakes, fire, pandemics, geopolitical threats, supply chain problems, and terrorist attacks. While some of these events are unlikely, weather-related outages in the Northeastern U.S. increased 159 percent from the 2000s to the 2010s. They also increased 113 percent in the Southwest and 110 percent in the southern Plains during the same period.
Adjusted for inflation, weather-related outages between 2003 and 2012 are estimated to have cost the U.S. economy between $22 billion and $40 billion.
Vulnerabilities in the Grid
Our dependence on centralized energy sources, like gas, coal, and nuclear, increases our vulnerability. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2021, 38 percent of electricity was generated using natural gas; 22 percent was generated from coal; and 19 percent was generated using nuclear power.
While the majority of recent power outages are the result of weather-related damage to the distribution system, the rising cost of fuel, including coal and gas; limitations of the supply chain; and the vulnerability of centralized power generation and distribution infrastructure could create outages in the future.
Sixteen mines in the Powder River Basin produce 43 percent of U.S. coal, most of which is used to generate electricity. BNSF Railway Company and Union Pacific Corporation jointly serve the southern Powder River Basin coal fields via a 103-mile rail line that is vulnerable to weather events and possible attack. In May 2005, heavy rain and snow, combined with accumulated coal dust in the roadbed, caused two coal trains to derail on consecutive days, damaging the line and temporarily putting it out of service. As a result, the spot price of Powder River Basin 8,800 Btu (British thermal unit) coal doubled from $8.19 per short ton before the derailments to $16.89 per short ton in October 2005.
Natural-gas pipelines are vulnerable to cyber and physical attacks like the ransomware cyberattack that disrupted Colonial Pipeline Co. and led to severe gas shortages across the East Coast in May 2021.
An attack on a nuclear plant could result in a catastrophe like Chernobyl or Fukushima. Recent events in Ukraine show how military attacks against power generation plants can destabilize a nation.
Photovoltaic systems can help mitigate the risk of disruption to fuel supplies. Community-centered solar generation programs can reduce the vulnerabilities that are inherent to highly centralized grid infrastructure.
Protecting Consumer Energy Supply
To secure America’s energy needs now and for the future, the nation needs to invest in longer-term, distributed energy generation at the local level.
Currently, economic forces, consumer demand, and government policy are driving the transition to a more varied energy mix that includes solar. But this approach will only protect the nation’s energy supply if it’s combined with decentralized energy generation that includes community solar.
Community solar is any solar project or purchasing program within a geographic area, that shares the benefits of the project among a range of consumers, including individuals, businesses, non-profits, and other groups. Utilities and third-party developers typically own community solar projects, which can be located on public buildings, private land, brownfield sites, and other suitable areas.
In most cases, the customers benefit from energy generated by solar panels at an off-site solar array. They can either buy or lease a portion of the solar panels in the array, typically receiving a credit on their electric bills for electricity generated by their share of the system. If subscribers move to a new home within the same utility service territory or county, they can typically continue to benefit from their share in the community solar program.
By creating a distributed network of small 5 megawatt to 10 megawatt solar arrays to serve the needs of local communities, the United States could reduce its dependence on foreign energy sources while better ensuring a resilient supply of energy.
Community Solar in Pennsylvania
The Pennsylvania General Assembly is reviewing policies that will promote renewable energy innovations, including solar. As some neighboring states have shown, expanding the Alternative Energy Portfolios Act of 2004 (AEPS) solar requirements can increase private investment in solar. The Pennsylvania solar industry remains hopeful that the state will join its neighbors to further protect the nation’s energy supply by expanding access to distributed power for all.
Making a switch or diversifying your energy sources with a solar energy system can be a safe, financially smart, and profitable decision in the longer term. If going solar is something that sounds right for your business, there are many things to consider. We can help you make sense of the entire picture.
To learn if solar is the right move for your organization, contact us for a free solar feasibility report.