The Solar Power Industry and Its Growing Pains

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Tim Mack

Tim Mack

The Kauai Island Utility Cooperative in the Hawaiian Islands would seem to be the poster child for the increasing market penetration of solar power. KIUC has quintupled utility-scale solar capacity over the past year and soon may approach 80% of peak power generation for solar on the island, as MIT Technology Review contributing editor Peter Fairley recently reported.

However, the path to the cutting edge has not been an easy one, underlining that basic futurist warning not to overlook the unintended consequences and systemic weak spots of technological innovation.

KIUC’s growth-related problems are grounded in that perennial challenge of renewable energy, the curse of power fluctuation, Fairley notes. Even in high sun-day settings like Hawaii, there are always a few clouds that pass by, sending power outputs dropping in less than a minute by 70% to 80%. The result is alternating current (AC) levels that fall below 60 hertz, which may damage customer equipment or even trigger a local blackout.

Naturally, utilities have installed diesel or gasoline-fired generators to take up that frequency droop, as well as large battery banks. But those generators ultimately wear out from frequent heavy use. They also pump petro-carbons into the atmosphere while continuing to consume petroleum, instead of largely replacing them with clean, renewable power.

On the battery side, the 4.5 megawatt bursts of replacement power needed to offset AC disruptions soon wore KIUC’s lead-acid battery banks out: They failed in one-quarter of the lifetime promised by the supplier. As Fairley reports, the utility is trying again with lithium-ion batteries, which are now rated for four to six times as many cycles and can absorb any excess solar power generation that might occur.

Judging from the subsequent (and related) bankruptcy of KIUC’s initial battery supplier, it is clear that performance projections for new applications are always an iffy business.

Note: It appears that foresight tools will always have a useful role in accurate technology assessment and adoption analysis, especially concerning the systemic impacts of new technology applications in new settings and configurations. In this case, the economic imperative to meet local energy needs on one side, and to make sales quotas on the other, led development partners to underestimate the challenges of such a massive conversion to renewables.

Balancing of normative optimism about desired outcomes with realistic assessment of possible shortfalls is essential for effective technology upgrades, and the cross-assessment of opportunities and potential threats is a central part of responsible foresight.

Timothy C. Mack is managing principal of AAI Foresight Inc.