Upcoming solar eclipse is showtime for natural gas

Natural gas is about to take center stage in showing renewables proponents the worth of the fossil fuel as solar energy’s backup.

During the upcoming Aug. 21 eclipse, operators of U.S. solar farms from California to the Carolinas will rely on power from fast-start natural gas-fired peaking plants (peakers), as well as hydroelectric plants and other sources to fill the gaps as the sky darkens.

The celestial event, the first total solar eclipse visible in the Lower 48 States in nearly four decades, will provide owners of gas turbines a chance to show their stuff.

The eclipse comes as the U.S. power grid undergoes a transformation that will bring increasing amounts of flexible resources needed to complement growing supplies of solar and wind energy.

Solar installations have grown 900% since 2012, and renewable sources are forecast to supply just as much of America’s electricity demand as natural gas by 2040, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

The "electric grid of tomorrow" will increasingly have to deal with fluctuating power supplies from the wind and sun while incorporating quick-start gas turbines during events like the upcoming eclipse, Stephen Berberich, president of California ISO, the state’s grid operator, told Bloomberg.

Operators will also use new technologies to control demand when the moon will completely block the sun along a 70-mile-wide corridor stretching from Oregon to South Carolina, Kallanish Energy learns.

Bloomberg calculates more than 9,000 megawatts of solar power may go down — the equivalent of roughly nine nuclear reactors.

To help keep the lights on, the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) will tap the state’s network of gas generators and hydroelectric dams to make up for the loss of about 6,000 MW of solar output over three hours.

Duke Energy said it will utilize gas generators in North Carolina, the biggest solar state after California, to make up for output that is expected to sink 92%, roughly 200 MW for 90 minutes.