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What Scientists Hope to Learn From Today's Solar Eclipse

Solar Tech Joshua Valdez, left, and Senior Plant ManagerTim Wisdom walk past solar panels and at a Pacific Gas and Electric Solar Plant, Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017, in Vacaville, Calif. Power grid managers say they've been preparing extensively for more than a year for this Monday's solar eclipse and that by ramping up other sources of power, mainly hydroelectric and natural gas, they are confident nobody will lose power or see a spike in energy prices.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP

Today’s the day. The highly anticipated solar eclipse is happening and people have never been so excited about 2 minutes and 43 seconds of darkness before.

But while most people are worried about getting the right glasses to watch the phenomenon, a few are concerned about the power grid and what the eclipse means for people relying on solar power.

The last total solar eclipse visible to the US occurred in 1979, before solar energy became a widely available source of power, according to FiveThirtyEight. Though solar energy is not uncommon today, it still accounts for less than 1% of electricity produced in the US, according to the US Energy Information Administration, meaning the eclipse shouldn’t cause nation-wide blackouts.

And while experts are not expecting the eclipse to cause any major blackouts, they are keeping a careful watch on power grids today and hoping to learn more about what this means for the future of solar energy, according to FiveThirtyEight.

“An eclipse is obviously not something we see every day, but this is going to be a good exercise for us,” said Randy Wheeless, a spokesman for Duke Energy, told the New York Times. “There’s no doubt more solar power is going to come onto the grid in the future, and that does increase the challenge of balancing the grid even on days when there’s not an eclipse.”

A few minutes of darkness doesn’t sound like it would have a huge impact on much, but solar plants in California will lose more than half of their ability to generate electricity during the eclipse, a spokesperson for the California Independent System Operator told Vox.

According to the New York Times, over 5,600 megawatts’ worth of solar panels in California will be knocked offline by the eclipse — nearly 30% of the state’s overall solar energy production. During this time, solar energy providers will have to use gas and hydropower to account for the lack of solar power.

But when the moon shifts to expose the sun minutes later, panels will suddenly be flooded with light.

You know when you go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and are blinded by the sudden light? It’s a little like that — only imagine your bathroom lights are industrial floodlights.

As soon as the moon moves, grid operators will have to respond quickly to account for the sudden light by reducing gas and hydropower levels, Eric Schmitt, vice president for operations at the California Independent System Operator, told the New York Times. Learning to adjust solar energy resources in response to weather events is not just about the eclipse. Today’s eclipse is an extreme instance of the changes in weather and sunlight that happen on a daily basis, for example, cloudy days.

“The total solar eclipse is a test case for renewable energy generally and weather events,” Phil Mihlmester, executive vice president for international energy industry consulting firm ICF, told Quartz. “As solar energy reliance becomes increasingly common, we’ll want to know how to ramp up fast and switch to an alternative power supply from solar quickly during an event.”

The next total solar eclipse will take place in 2024, according to AccuWeather, and hopefully by then many more people will be using solar energy and other clean, sustainable energy sources. This would also mean many more people would be affected by the next eclipse; however, researchers are hopeful that a smooth response to today’s eclipse will help demonstrate that wind and solar energies are reliable and can support a larger portion of the country’s power grid, according to the New York Times.

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