A fascinating Forbes article discusses problems that next Monday's solar eclipse will cause for California's electricity supply. The problems throw new light on a solar energy project that I first proposed during the Nixon administration.
This will be the first solar eclipse affecting the United States since we began generating electricity with solar energy. At certain times of the day, 40 percent of California's electricity is being generated by the sun. Although the eclipse will not be total in California, at its peak about 75 percent of the sun will be covered. During this period California will lose nearly a third of its usual electrical supply for that time of day.
Californians need not fear that their lights and air conditioning will go out, since electrical utilities will crank up gas turbines and hydroelectric dams to make up for the reduced solar energy.
At first glance, this suggested that I reconsider a project I first proposed nearly half a century ago: to connect the Eastern and Western hemispheres into a single worldwide electrical network. The network would allow the world to be powered almost entirely by solar energy, despite the fact that sunlight is not available at night and that storing electricity for nighttime use was (and still may be) uneconomical. The sun is always shining somewhere. This system would allow extra electricity generated in the hemisphere where the sun is shining to be shipped to where it is nighttime.
The two hemispheres would be connected at the Bering Strait between Alaska and Siberia, where the hemispheres are only a few dozen miles apart and the ocean is shallow. High voltage DC and possibly superconductivity would minimize losses caused by long-distance transmission.
But what if my proposed system had been built, with all atomic, coal, and gas plants torn down? What if hydroelectric dams had been demolished to protect fish, as some environmental enthusiasts have advocated? With no backup generators, what would happen during solar eclipses? I had never thought about this.
California's situation illustrates the difficulty of predicting the side effects of a proposed action. And the bigger the change an action will produce, the bigger the possible problems with unexpected side effects. The situation is an excellent example of what I have dubbed "the dilematunity principle:" Opportunities and problems rarely exist in isolation from each other. When a problem arises, it likely brings with it new opportunities, or perhaps perception of opportunities not previously noticed. Conversely, opportunities are usually accompanied by new problems.
Here, the opportunity to build a universal power system that reduces environmental damage from hydrocarbons, atomic generators, or dams, might also seem to bring a new problem: how to power the whole planet during rare times when a solar eclipse is happening and no backup systems are available.
Clearly, a world-wide electrical system would be a major change from present arrangements, bringing the possibility of important and unfortunate side effects. However it turns out that lack of power during solar eclipses would not in fact be one of those problems.
Monday's eclipse will cause significant challenges for California only because California relies largely on locally generated electricity and local generation will be substantially reduced. But if that state were connected into a world-wide system, it could simply draw more electricity from that larger system during the eclipse.
Solar eclipses would produce modest temporary reductions in total power available for the world. But the universal power system could cope with this, and with other localized generation problems, using simple load-leveling techniques: interruptible power contracts with major industrial users, temporary price increases, and the like. These techniques would be necessary in any event to handle daily and seasonal variations in the availability of sunlight.
Although I have had no luck in getting serious consideration of a world-wide solar power network, I still think it might allow us to escape from some of today's environmental and economic problems.
When I first learned of the problems Monday's eclipse will cause in California, I feared that my idea for universal solar power was not such a hot one after all. Fortunately, it turned out that the problems come out in the wash.