On Monday, Mother Nature, seemingly unprompted, provided a test of one of the more controversial ideas tossed around by the energy and environmental staff installed by President Trump.
Here's their question: Do recent changes to way power is generated in the United States — namely, more solar and wind, less coal and nuclear — mean the nation's grid operators will not have enough power plants to meet electricity needs when the wind isn't blowing or the sun isn't shining?
Right now, the Energy Department is finalizing an overdue study asking whether the national electric grid can handle the lost of so-called “baseload” power plants as older coal and nuclear facilities are priced out of the electricity market by cheaper renewables.
“As the utility sector prepares for the short-term impact of a solar eclipse, a much larger problem looms for solar advocates — the diminishing value of intermittent solar as a reliable source of electricity,” said Thomas Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research and a member of Trump’s transition team for energy.
The grid reliability study has been delayed since June, though Shaylyn Hynes, a press officer at the Energy Department, told me it will be published “soon.”
But the concern over grid reliability got a real-world test on Monday when the moon cast its shadow across the continental United States from Oregon to South Carolina, dampening solar energy generation in the top two states for solar capacity — California and North Carolina.
As thousands of Americans craned their necks skyward to take in the eclipse, grid operators in California didn’t don eclipse glasses but instead focused on the task at hand — working in a windowless room to keep the lights on elsewhere in the Golden State, without even seeing the event firsthand.
The eclipse went off without a hitch for the California Independent System Operator (CAISO), which delivers 80 percent of the electricity in a state that has more solar energy capacity than every other state in the country combined. As predicted, solar energy production dipped across CAISO's grid beginning at 9 a.m. Pacific Standard Time before spiking back up about an hour and a half later. I went to CAISO's headquarters in Folsom, just outside Sacramento, to watch the action.
I'm at California's grid operator for the eclipse. Here's what's happening to the state's solar energy right now (in yellow) pic.twitter.com/3hBmICYjDz— Dino Grandoni (@dino_grandoni) August 21, 2017
*george costanza voice* solar is back, baby pic.twitter.com/0aOe36J1l9— Dino Grandoni (@dino_grandoni) August 21, 2017
“Things went really, really well,” Eric Schmitt, vice president of operations at CAISO, said after the eclipse.
Nature helped, even if it blotted out the sun in the first place. The weather was generally mild statewide, meaning fewer Californians likely turned on their air conditioners. And elevated reservoirs at the Helms Pumped Storage Plant in the Sierra Nevada, for example, were flush with water from the rainy season that was used to power hydroelectric pumps.
Things shook out similarly in North Carolina. There, Duke Energy had readied natural gas-fired generators to make up for lost solar power in a state second only to California in total solar capacity. Though only the western toe of the Tar Heel State saw a total eclipse, Duke, the state’s main electricity supplier, lost 1,700 of its 2,500 megawatts of solar capacity at its height.
“Our system reacted as planned, and we were able to reliably and efficiently meet the energy demands of our customers in the Carolinas,” said Sammy Roberts, Duke Energy’s director of system operations.
David M. Hart, a professor and director of the Center for Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy at George Mason, put the takeaway from Monday's eclipse like this: "The event is another in a long list of examples that show that system operators are able to integrate the current level of renewables on the grid without sacrificing reliability."
Well before Trump took office, grid operators have been mulling the question of intermittency of solar and wind energy. CAISO, for example, has been studying how to offset a drop in energy output from one solar facility due to cloud cover with output from another where the sun shines brighter.
And Duke Energy, like many other companies, is trying to deploy new battery technology. The electric power company installed a large-scale battery at a substation that serves National Gypsum. That battery offsets generation downturns from solar panels installed at the drywall manufacturer's facility outside Charlotte.
All that isn't to say intermittency won't be an issue at all. Grid operators will have to learn to handle more common but less predictable sun-obscuring events, like thunderstorms, as more wind and solar facilities come online.
Which means that other U.S. grid managers were watching California closely. “All the grid managers talk to each other,” Nancy Traweek, CAISO’s executive director of system operations. “We’re always in touch with one another.”
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THE ENERGY 202 - TOTAL ECLIPSE EDITION
We're back from vacation this week, publishing only on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday with Congress still out of session. We'll get to all of the recent energy and environmental headlines tomorrow. But for today, all our other sections go dark so we can contemplate the eclipse before it fades into memory.
1. A day without politics... For a few hours on Monday, the sun really was the center of the universe. For once since January, a news story about a hot orange ball that is not named Trump took over cable channels and social media feeds.
“The only thing we all cared about was the sun, the moon and the sky. We all were here for one reason," Haja Goggans, 17, who had driven more than six hours from Milwaukee to Carbondale, Ill., told The Post.
The Post’s Gene Park remarked:
Honestly it's been refreshing to experience a highly intense national news cycle that had nothing to do with politics.— Gene Park (@GenePark) August 21, 2017
i feel like crying.— Gene Park (@GenePark) August 21, 2017
is that a symptom of blindness
And The Guardian’s Ben Jacobs said:
Worth noting that the only two things all summer which have kept Trump out of the news for a day are a solar eclipse and OJ Simpson— Ben Jacobs (@Bencjacobs) August 21, 2017
2. ...at least for a moment. The eclipse was apolitical until the president chose to take a peek at it without safety glasses — and, inadvertently this time, made the event about him.
“Don’t look,” a White House aide told the president, per the press pool. Trump had looked upward toward the sun, The Post's Herman Wong reports, pointing and giving the crowd a thumbs up. It’s not clear if Trump actually looked directly at the sun, but that didn’t stop the swift social media reaction.
Some noted that Trump was likely not alone in ignoring the one cardinal rule of eclipse-watching:
Everyone's googling "my eyes hurt" today pic.twitter.com/KJ0S5je7sX— Gene Park (@GenePark) August 21, 2017
From Robert Maguire of the Center for Responsive Politics:
This is why we can't have nice things pic.twitter.com/L0u3d8h2q0— Robert Maguire (@RobertMaguire_) August 21, 2017
Matt Flegenheimer of the New York Times best captured this particular moment in the sun for the president:
The president looked. He half-smiled. He pointed. Looking was fun.
And with that, Mr. Trump had done it once more, on as cosmic a scale as any. He has run afoul of party officials, historical precedent, political gravity, stately decorum. Why not the sun?
Almost as good is the Daily News's take:
The president eventually put on his glasses:
Some Trump critics used the eclipse to throw shade on his administration. Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state, and Lloyd Blankfein, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs, appeared to make metaphor out of the astronomical event.
Wish the moon wasn't the only thing casting a shadow across the country. We got through one, we'll get through the other. #SolarEclipse2017— Lloyd Blankfein (@lloydblankfein) August 21, 2017
And CNN's David Wright proves you can always find a way to insert a 2016 joke:
sounds like this eclipse is going to come down to turnout— David Wright (@DavidWright_CNN) August 21, 2017
"it totally ignored the Rust Belt" pic.twitter.com/ibzalI2oc7— David Wright (@DavidWright_CNN) August 21, 2017
From SNL writer Zack Bornstein:
Is there anything more on-brand than Mr. Trump thinking his retinas are stronger than the sun? pic.twitter.com/NLm61zYwGU— Zack Bornstein (@ZackBornstein) August 21, 2017
3. Science wins. The eclipse mania on Monday was all about the details. Most Americans could only view a partial eclipse. In Washington, D.C., for example, people gathered on rooftops in the early afternoon to see 81 percent of the sun covered. Chicago had a bit more of a show, with 87 percent obscuration.
An editorial in the Chicago Sun-Times noted an obvious but, at least in this current political climate, important point. Those percentages are predictions made by scientists — ones that could be verified by anyone's own two eyes, as along as they were wearing NASA-approved safety glasses.
But when it comes to all kinds of other scientifically verified phenomena — the reality of man-made climate change, the safety of vaccinations, the safety of genetically modified crops — it is remarkable how easily so many otherwise sensible people tune scientists out. For reasons that have nothing to do with science, they reject the overwhelming consensus of the folks who know best,” the editorial board wrote. “Monday’s solar eclipse reminds us that the natural world will do its thing whether we listen to scientists or not. Climate change, for one, can’t be wished away.
Indeed, though not always perfect, predictions made by scientists related to global warming are coming true. As Justin Gillis summarizes in the New York Times:
By the 1960s and ’70s, climate scientists were making more detailed predictions. They said that as the surface of the Earth warmed, the temperature in the highest reaches of the atmosphere would fall. That is exactly what happened.
The scientists told us that the Arctic would warm especially fast. They told us to expect heavier rainstorms. They told us heat waves would soar. They told us that the oceans would rise. All of those things have come to pass.
Or as Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban noted:
Anyone still think the Earth is flat ?— Mark Cuban (@mcuban) August 21, 2017
4. The day “The Distant Future” arrived. Many also marveled at news clippings that mentioned August 21, 2017 as a date in an unfathomably distant future.
A throwback from the New York Times’ Archives:
Gizmodo’s Matt Novak:
"May the shadow of the moon fall on a world at peace." ABC News report from February 26, 1979 about the world of August 21, 2017 pic.twitter.com/oRK0mwAoLm— Matt Novak (@paleofuture) August 18, 2017
The Post’s Philip Bump writes:
The year 1979 now seems tangibly close in the way that 40 years in the past seems but 40 years in the future doesn’t. When I was a kid, the year 2000 was hopelessly distant, a whole new era in which even the way we described the names of the years needed to be rethought — and that was in the 1980s.
For Americans in 1979, 2017 was a foreign land. For Americans in 1932, reading about an eclipse in the year 2017 must have been like talking to them about 2300. What will the world be like in 2100? That is as distant to us now as 2017 was to them then, making our current year an effective proxy for The Distant Future. Ten or 15 years from now is generally imaginable. Anything past that is a blend of pointy rockets, cyberbrains and annihilation. Conceivable but intangible. A million extrapolations outward from life now, all of which miss the mark.
5. There's always next time. If you're not in the Don't Know/Don't Care category of people, you may be wondering about your next opportunity to view such an event. If you missed Monday’s solar eclipse, the next one is in less than a decade: Another total solar eclipse will occur on April 8, 2024, crossing a path from Texas to Maine. You have just more than 2,400 days to get a pair of safety glasses.
--Where were you during totality? Several politicians shared photos as they experienced Monday's eclipse.
From Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.):
From Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.):
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) poked fun at his colleague's picture:
And Graham shot back:
You must have been blinded by #eclispe2017 to not see the 'guns' !— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) August 21, 2017
From Former President George H. W. Bush:
Four generations of family taking in the partial eclipse today. Already looking forward to the next one in Texas in 2024! pic.twitter.com/3iSPh9iydA— George Bush (@GeorgeHWBush) August 21, 2017
--Leave it to the experts: If, like us, you were mostly disappointed with the smartphone pictures you took of the sun, here's a few of the stunning images of the eclipse from NASA:
NASA also captured the International Space Station photobombing its image of the eclipse:
And finally, we'll leave you with this from NASA:
And if you still want to read more about the eclipse, here's a roundup of some good stories from The Post and beyond:
- The 14th Annual EPA Drinking Water Workshop begins in Ohio.
- The 10th Congress on Alternatives and Animal Use in Life Sciences continues in Seattle.
- The Interior’s Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization’s Navy Gold Coast Small Business Procurement conference begins.
- The EPA holds a national stormwater calculator webinar on Wednesday.
Watch highlights from the great American eclipse:
Watch The Post’s Sarah Kaplan narrate the moment of complete totality in Carbondale, Ill.:
How U.S. businesses took advantage of the eclipse:
Here are the best moments from The Post's Dave Jorgenson'svisit to Cross Plains, Tenn., to see if their famous fainting goats would react;
Louis Tomososki, who watched an eclipse in 1963 and was left partially blinded in one eye, traveled to Colton, Ore. to watch the complete solar eclipse on Monday: