Is COVID-19 Changing the Solar Duck Curve?

The current stay-at-home orders in effect across the country have done more than shuttered non-essential businesses and schools, they’re also shifting energy-use patterns. This changing use pattern means utilities and grid operators have had to reassess how to plan for new load forecasting frameworks.

One area where this paradigm shift is most noticeable is known as the “duck curve.”

What’s the Duck Curve?

Throughout the day, electricity demand and solar energy production don’t always align. When the sun is out, PV installations capture this sunlight and send it to the energy grid. However, this energy influx drops off after sunset right as home electricity begins to peak. As a result, utilities must rapidly ramp up other sources of electricity, which is very inefficient.

When viewed at a 24-hour snapshot, the empty space between the two lines plotting the difference between supply and demand on a graph resembles a duck, providing the name for this phenomenon. The duck curve typically occurs only during Spring when it’s sunny but not yet too hot. But there also needs to be a high proliferation of solar panels, so places like California, Texas, and Hawaii fit the bill.

As solar PV systems continue to boost efficiency and produce more power during daylight hours, this energy can’t always be used when it’s generated. This drives the supply-demand curve downward, forcing state grid operators to curtail solar as it outpaces demand.

The duck curve provides guidance for energy companies on when curtailment is needed, and when other options need to be taken. This includes using a solar battery fleet or exporting the extra energy to neighboring states.

Unfortunately, the current economic slowdown has created new challenges for addressing the changing duck curve and projecting the power needs that drive it.

How COVID-19 impacts the duck curve

With such a large and sudden shift in energy-use patterns, it’s become increasingly difficult for utilities and grid operators to accurately calculate load-forecasting data.

As restaurants, retailers and other commercial enterprises have either closed or greatly reduced operations, it’s resulted in reduced commercial energy loads. Meanwhile, residential electricity use has spiked.

Moving forward, as states start to slowly lift stay-at-home orders and re-open businesses, it will present additional complications in load-forecasting. Further exacerbating this is that no one knows for certain how long and how slow this return to normalcy will be - and indeed, if even a full return to normalcy will occur. Many businesses are allowing for more work-from-home options, while many schools also plan on adopting increased remote learning options.

With these shifting life and energy patterns likely to remain in effect to some degree, it provides all of us an opportunity to rethink how our choices impact the grid and our communities.

Thankfully, the data from frameworks like the solar duck curve can help grid operators and utilities make the necessary adjustments to enable optimal solar usage and storage. As noted above, several solutions to the duck curve have already been put into effect. But the new normal for energy usage may hasten further development and implementation of these solutions, helping to make the energy grid and solar power more efficient than ever before.

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