Can solar tech help to mitigate voltage fluctuations?

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A group of utility executives, worried about the massive influx of distributed solar power generation on their electric grids, were almost begging in 2013 for smart solar inverters which could mitigate voltage fluctuations that can be damaging to equipment. It seems to have taken a while, but their wish is gradually coming true.

Credit: Tvabutzku1234/Wikimedia Commons

The Californiaa Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) authorized a standard for using smart solar inverters in December and at least some of which should be in action in some locations soon. As the IEEE Spectrum, a publication of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, pointed out, California is far from the first to bring smart inverters in to help ensure grid stability by reducing voltage fluctuations.

As part of its massive energy transition, Energiewende, Germany routinely employs smart solar inverters. The country, a world leader in solar power promotion and integration, has been criticized consistently since it embarked on its aggressive renewable campaign — largely because critics expected the accelerated growth of distributed solar would eventually be disastrous for its electric grid. As it happens, the reverse has been true. Germany records instances of power outages and has found they have dropped significantly since widespread solar integration began.

Germany should know. The country’s explosive growth in solar began about 10 years ago and its smart inverter requirements for maintaining grid stability were enacted about three years ago.

“Traditionally, we’ve been looking for these devices (inverters) to trip off with any hiccup on the distribution system. Now they are becoming a resource,” said Robert Sherick, principal manager for advanced technology for Southern California Edison, in the Spectrum article.

At least some power companies have taken another route and installed energy storage systems to soak up the excess solar power and discharge it when the sun is not shining. But that, as some utilities have discovered, is risky if used as a standalone solution. Larger power fluctuations can damage the systems, leaving their ability to absorb and discharge power severely limited.

Other distribution system fixes have been tried, too. The arguments for smart inverters is that they are relatively inexpensive — and they work. IEEE is in the process of developing standards it believes will make smart inverters more widely used in the U.S.

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Utilities call for help on solar power, demand smart inverters