Why solar energy cannot replace fossil fuels just yet

As modern institutions begin to address the climate crisis, ominous undertones about climate change seem to be ubiquitous on all levels of our education system, and now it is suddenly our generation’s responsibility to avert an impending global catastrophe. Now, the website of every company and university features some kind of carbon reduction pledge on its front page with visionary energy portfolios consisting of a dramatic increase in the use of solar energy. While this may lead many to believe that anyone can be “net zero” with a conscious effort, the hard truth is that our lack of sufficient technology and infrastructure prevents solar energy from playing a more significant role in the journey to net zero carbon emissions. High school science classes’ curricula now include a rudimentary explanation of renewable versus nonrenewable energy, teaching students that oil is bad and solar and wind energy is good. For most people, that is where the education stops. Right now, there is an overwhelming lack of knowledge about how the power grid functions, and it results in Americans misdirecting their activism into channels that are not efficiently reducing our carbon emissions. 

The power grid operates on a balance of supply and demand that is constantly fluctuating. On any given day, if the demand for power exceeds what power plants are generating, then grid voltages will be pulled downwards, and the state will have to buy power from neighboring states or companies or face rolling brownouts, a temporary drop in voltage. However, if the plant generates too much power, the voltage on the grid would be too high and will damage any electric equipment that is connected to it. 

Therefore, for the power grid to function properly, generated power has to match used power within a slim margin. Most power plants generate alternating current (AC) power by rotating turbines, whether it be from coal or natural gas burning, water moving through a dam or nuclear fission. To match this load, plants can control how fast their turbines are rotating. 

On the other hand, there are two significant issues with the use of solar panels. The first is that they generate direct current (DC) electricity in a grid of AC electricity. Before being properly transmitted and eventually consumed, the DC electricity must be converted to AC electricity through a digital inverter, which is less efficient and more expensive than AC power generation. Coupled with their expensive production costs, this makes solar panels more difficult and expensive to implement on a large scale. Additionally, solar panels cannot adjust the rate at which they produce electricity to match the load of the grid, making them unreliable in times of peak demand. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average load on the grid can increase or decrease  anywhere from 20-50% in one day, depending on the weather. Therefore, solar energy can only account for a certain percentage of the grid’s power without diminishing its reliability. 

Overall, our current technology cannot accommodate solar energy on a national scale. However, it still has practical applications that help to reduce our carbon footprint. When an acre of solar panels are installed to offset natural gas usage, they sequester about 175 to 198 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, according to Columbia University. This has an undeniable and significantly positive impact on carbon emissions that cannot be discounted. A novel application of solar energy comes in the form of microgrids, which seek to address the key issues that make solar energy unfeasible for a large, delicate power grid. Microgrids are power grids isolated from the main grid that connects the nation, and they usually support smaller communities with completely renewable energy. Through advanced control and battery technology, solar panels are able to reliably power a small community. Microgrids, while offering energy independence and resilience, harbor their own tradeoffs. Their initial costs are astronomical and would demand hefty government support. Moreover, isolation from the main grid, while enhancing local resilience, exposes communities to the risk of prolonged outages in case of major failures. Ultimately, microgrids serve as valuable case studies in community-driven renewable solutions, but they cannot become the sole focus of our climate efforts.

It is easy to blame our lack of clean energy use on an “other,” like a large corporation or the government, but the problem is more complex than that. Even my explanation of solar energy and the grid is a gross oversimplification of all the factors involved. It is important to acknowledge that effective carbon reduction strategies still have to consider important elements like cost, reliability and societal impact. With today’s technology, fuel alternatives like solar energy continue to fall short of what is necessary to power contemporary society.