Upcoming solar eclipse will cast small shadow over solar generation

The upcoming total solar eclipse will affect solar generation across the country and provide a new data point for utility experts, including those at Oklahoma Gas and Electric Co.

OG&E’s community solar farm at its Mustang plant in far west Oklahoma City has been in operation for two years. The 2.5-megawatt installation consists of 2,000 fixed solar panels and 8,000 panels that track the sun throughout the day.

The Aug. 21 solar eclipse will obscure the sunlight at 1,900 photovoltaic solar plants in the United States, said the federal Energy Information Administration. However, few solar plants lie in the path of complete totality, where it will be dark for up to three minutes of the three-hour event.

About 85 percent of the sun will be obscured in central Oklahoma during the peak of the eclipse about lunchtime Aug. 21. That’s close to the time of the typical peak output of the Mustang solar plant on a summer day, said Phil Crissup, OG&E’s vice president of utility technical support.

“We will see it right in the middle of the day, so we’ll see a drop from about 100 percent across the peak output to about 15 percent output,” Crissup said. “It will be a really interesting day to look at on the output data.”

The eclipse is an expected event, so solar generation experts don’t see any issues with reliability. Its effect at the Mustang solar plant will be similar to a cloudy day or a midday thunderstorm, OG&E representatives said.

Nationally, the eclipse will affect solar plants in Georgia and North Carolina the most, the EIA said. The path of totality affects 17 utility-scale solar generators, mostly in eastern Oregon. Meanwhile, hundreds of plants — totaling 4,000 megawatts of capacity — in North Carolina and Georgia will be at least 90 percent obscured.

“During the eclipse, electricity generation in the areas affected by the eclipse will have to increase output from other sources of electricity generation to supplement to supplement the decrease in solar power,” EIA said.

With two years of data from the Mustang solar plant, OG&E is seeing peak capacity factors some summer days over 40 percent, Crissup said. That capacity factor means it produces electricity for almost 10 hours of the day.

On an average basis, the solar plant has monthly capacity factors in excess of 30 percent in June and July to a low of about 13 percent in December. The tracking panels provide about 15 percent more output than the fixed panels.

On a typical summer day in June and July, Crissup said production picks up about 9 a.m., with about 20 percent of total output. That rises to about 95 percent by noon and reaches peak between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Then it starts to decline, and by 6 p.m., electricity output is about 60 percent.

OG&E last month announced a second community solar project near Covington, in southeast Garfield County. The 10-megawatt facility will have about 38,000 panels that will track the sun. It is expected to be in operation by early 2018.

The next total solar eclipse visible over North America will be in April 2024. By that time, solar will be a larger part of the electricity generation mix. The Solar Energy Industries Association estimates solar capacity will triple to 128,000 megawatts by 2022, up from 42,000 megawatts at the end of 2016.

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11 August 2017 5:00 am
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