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for people who care about the West

When solar eclipses coal

A solar eclipse comes to the West as solar energy surges past coal.


By the time you read this, you may be on your way to some carefully chosen spot along the 70-mile-wide path of the much-hyped solar eclipse. Or perhaps you’re just returning from the celestial event, elated by those two-plus minutes of eerie darkness, but exhausted from fighting traffic on some usually lonesome Idaho or Wyoming byway.

Even if you didn’t experience “totality,” if you were anywhere in North America, you likely witnessed a partial eclipse. And certainly you didn’t miss the eclipse in cyberspace, where you could find everything from detailed scientific explanations to marketing pitches for sunglasses and astrological predictions of doom for Donald Trump’s presidency.

I’ve been particularly intrigued by the stories of the eclipse’s impact on solar power production, especially in California, which gets 5 percent of its electricity from the sun. According to the California Public Utility Commission, the moon will obscure 58 to 76 percent of the sun’s rays there, resulting in a temporary loss of 4,194 megawatts, enough electricity to power several million homes. Fortunately, this will happen in the cool of the morning before peak demand, and system operators have already lined up backup power from fossil-fuel sources. No need to panic.

A decade ago, we wouldn’t have given a thought to the loss of solar power. But, as Elizabeth Shogren reports in this issue, the growth in solar has been so dramatic that it is now something we fight over regularly. Total solar installations for homes and businesses in the U.S. are expected to hit 2 million next year, and in Nevada, rooftop solar grew eightfold between 2014 and 2016.

The jump in residential solar has been driven by a dramatic drop in solar panel costs and by utility companies reimbursing customers for the power they generate for the grid. Now, as Shogren reports, many utilities are losing their enthusiasm for rooftop solar as they see their profits shrink. But their efforts to kill or reduce net-metering programs have met stiff resistance from a broad spectrum of the public as well as the burgeoning solar industry. Shogren’s analysis of the bipartisan fight in Nevada reveals solar power’s arrival as a major economic and political player in the West. It also shows how utilities are being forced to adjust to a changing energy landscape.

Executive Director and Publisher Paul Larmer
Brooke Warren/High Country News

It’s all happening remarkably fast. Within the last year, major utilities in Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico have begun shedding coal-fired electricity in favor of natural gas and renewables, like solar and wind. And, as Jonathan Thompson reports, with a smarter, more integrated grid system on the horizon, Western utilities will have more flexibility than ever to move away from fossil fuels.

Maybe the solar eclipse is a portent not of doom, but of enlightenment: our civilization’s long-overdue revolution in how it powers itself.