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Solar power can head out of the clouds says CSIRO

It's always sunny somewhere, so smarter grids could make large-scale renewables viable

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The old saw about solar power is that the sun isn’t always shining – but in a country as large as Australia, good engineering and intelligent grids can go a long way to overcoming the challenge of intermittency, according to Australia’s CSIRO.

The nearly 200-page report, Solar intermittency: Australia’s clean energy challenge, notes that to date, most discussion of intermittency is “anecdotal, difficult to verify and limited to a particular technical, geographical or social context.” Its 12-month study, supported by a grant from the government’s Australian Solar Institute, was conducted in conjunction with the Australian Energy Market Operator and the Energy Networks Association.

CSIRO Energy Centre team leader Dr Glenn Platt says the problem isn’t confined to the question of large-scale solar power generation. Localised interruptions are already visible to the grid as a result of Australia’s strong uptake of rooftop PV, and the problem will grow as more systems are brought online.

Platt says that good weather forecasting at different timescales is important. Longer timescale forecasts (the normal forecasts a few days ahead) need to be supplemented with near-real-time forecasting to help mitigate short-term “flicker” from solar power, he said.

CSIRO says that with good solar forecasting tools, a grid designed to cope with localized interruptions, and with the right mitigation strategies, intermittency can be handled.

Interestingly, the study notes that power quality standards can have as much impact on the suitability of large-scale solar generation as the technology itself. Even the grid standards within Australia can vary so widely that “a breach of a restrictive standard in one region may be no worse than complying with a relaxed standard in another.”

The report notes that intermittency is not specific to solar power: today’s grid experiences intermittency both because of localized failures, and from changes in usage patterns. From the point of view of the grid, he told the ABC, solar power looks “exactly like air conditioners going on and off”.

The research involved gathering data from Australia’s major solar power research stations (The University of Queensland’s 1.2 MW PV system, the CSIRO’s 22 kW research installation in Newcastle, NSW, and the Desert Knowledge Australia Solar Centre at Alice Springs in the Northern Territory).

The study is described here (including a link to the full 198-page epic). ®

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