Goofy pronouncement on solar power from someone who should know better

When the chairman of the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission talked about residential solar cells protecting the grid from attack, he ignored realities of how solar panels are hooked up. Does he know better and this was just a slip of the tongue? Let's hope so.

The chairman of the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is talking some heat over comments he made at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance summit in New York.

He first said the U.S. power grid is vulnerable to terrorist attacks. So far so good. Few people would argue with that statement particularly after a gunman damaged a transformer April 16, triggering power shortages in Silicon Valley.

But according to Bloomberg News, FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff then went on to say words to the effect that the growing use of rooftop solar panels will provide protection against lengthy blackouts. "A more distributed system is much more resilient,” he is quoted as saying. “Millions of distributed generators can’t be taken down at once.”

This is great in theory but does not jibe with the reality of how solar panels are installed. For safety reasons, solar arrays switch themselves off the grid if they sense that the grid voltage has disappeared. This is done for the protection of utility workers effecting repairs on the lines. Otherwise, there is a potential for workers to touch an energized wire on what is supposed to be the "cold" side of the connection. There would be a very real electrocution hazard were this allowed to happen.

In addition, solar arrays are connected such that they don't directly supply power to the building on which they sit. The juice they generate all goes back to the power substation serving that particular local area. Connections are done this way as, among other reasons, a means of preventing damage caused by power brown-outs if the solar array lacks the capacity to handle the whole building load.

So the realization of the "distributed generation" system that Chairman Wellinghoff touts here could only happen with a complete change in policy and a complete rewiring of how solar panels and other alternative energy systems are connected into the grid.

One might expect the chairman of FERC to know this, but whether he does or not is impossible to discern from his comments at the Bloomberg energy conference. Let's hope he was just having a bad day.

 

Discuss this Blog Entry 4

on May 2, 2013

I think there is a different definition of "distributed generation" being applied by Wellinghoff.
Yes, individual sites generating power are disconnected from the grid during power outage.
But the sites are still likely to be generating power and using power without the grid. So, they are still "distributed" in generation and usage of power.
And , yes, more resilient (not everyone loses power when the grid goes down).
Indeed , often not ALL the grid goes down together. Sections of the grid are dis-connected when power goes down in a given area... allowing the individual power generating sites on still functioning sections to continue to contribute power to their sections.

Anonymous (not verified)
on May 2, 2013

Prime example of yet another attorney sitting in an engineer's or plant managers position.

John Lawn (not verified)
on May 2, 2013

There are many "distributed power producer" options in theory--a popular one currently is the idea that the country could have millions of electric cars charging constantly--but also available for power storage and redundancy. But in fact, the existing infrastructure and control systems are not very friendly to such idealistic theory, as this writer points out. Decades ago, the same speculation was used to justify "small power producers" in the original PURPA legislation (part of the 1978 Energy Act) but we have little to show for it now.

Anonymous (not verified)
on May 15, 2013

Too many lawyers in goverment that think they know something about technology!

Post new comment
or to use your Machine Design ID
What's From the Editor's Desk?

The Editor’s Desk focuses on the engineering profession and its impact on society, trends in engineering compensation, and the education of engineers.

Contributors

Lee Teschler

Leland serves as Editor-in-Chief of Machine Design. He has 34 years of Service and holds a B.S. Engineering from the University of Michigan, a B.S. Electrical Engineering from the University of...
Blog Archive
Connect With Us