Traditionally, one the biggest problems with solar power has been rain. Make that rain, clouds and all the other kinds of less-than-sunny weather that are quite common in most parts of the country and really limit the effectiveness of a solar panel. The inability to predict how much power a panel will be able to generate has left many homeowners and businesses alike dubious about the value of installing a solar panel.
But there’s a flipside to this weather challenge that you don’t hear about as often: What do you do when a solar panel generates more energy than the structure it sits on needs?
The answer has long existed, in theory: You store that excess power and find a way to distribute it to neighboring structures, or to sell it back to the electric utility. And now a growing number of utilities are successfully implementing these Distributed Solar power plants.
The New York Times reports that in recent weeks, a number of Distributed Solar deals have been announced or approved, which collectively could produce as much power as a large nuclear plant.
The trend results partly from an oversupply of solar modules, which has brought prices down significantly, making it more cost effective to install a lot of smaller panels across a region. It’s also been helped along by some stimulus investments made under last year’s Recovery Act.
This Chicago utility is using federal stimulus funds to test distributed solar on a grid of 131,000 homes as part of a project that also aimed at helping households better track and limit their energy consumption.
As we move beyond simply generating power from the sun and get better at storing it and transmitting it, solar power prices are likely to become more competitive with traditional power sources, which should further boost demand.
And, once households come to understand that all the sun beating down on their roofs is not theirs for the taking, but comes at a price, we’ll probably start hearing about a strange phenomenon: Conserving solar.