Goofy pronouncement on solar power from someone who should know better

May 2, 2013
You'd think the chairman of the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would know how solar panels hook into a power system. Judging from his recent comments, that may be a bad assumption.

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.

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