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The Solar Power Duck Curve Explained

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The Solar Power Duck Curve Explained

The Solar Power Duck Curve Explained

With the increasing demand for electricity as the world shifts away from fossil fuels, cleaner sources of energy like solar and wind are becoming more and more common.

However, as more solar power is introduced into our grids, operators are dealing with a new problem that can be visualized as the “duck curve.”

Origins of the Duck Curve

In a world heavily reliant on electricity, utility companies have gotten better at using data to anticipate demand and trying to operate as efficiently as possible.

Usually, power companies supply the least amount of power overnight while most consumers are sleeping, ramping up during the morning as people wake up and businesses get going. Then, at sunset, energy demand peaks.

Utility companies use models to predict demand and operate as efficiently as possible by supplying more power during times of higher demand. But the introduction of solar power has brought about problems in these demand curve models.

Since solar power relies on the Sun, peak solar production occurs around midday, when electricity demand is often on the lower end. As a result, energy production is higher than it needs to be, and net demand—total demand minus wind and solar production—falls. Then, when evening approaches, net demand increases, while solar power generation falls.

This discrepancy results in a net demand curve that takes the shape of a duck, and the duck curve gets more pronounced each year, as more solar capacity is added and net demand dips lower and lower at midday.

Why the Curve is Ruffling Feathers

The drop in net demand at midday basically creates two problems:

  1. Solar energy production wanes as the sun sets, just as demand for energy typically peaks. Utility companies are having to ramp up production to compensate for this gap, often overstressing a grid that is not yet set up for these peaks.
  2. Traditional sources of energy like nuclear and coal are only economic when they are running all the time. If you have to turn them off at mid-day because the power is supplied by solar, they become economically unfeasible.

Due to overproduction, solar power is already being wasted in some places where the technology is widely used, like California.

The problem is most intense during summer or spring when part of the solar panels has to be turned off to avoid overloading or even damaging the power grid.

Flattening the Duck

With more countries starting to rely on solar power, there are many potential solutions for the duck curve being explored (and implemented):

  • Energy Storage: Overproduction of solar power during the day can be utilized by improving batteries and grid storage capacity.
  • Powering Alternatives: Extra solar power can go towards powering energy generation at night, such as pumping water for hydroelectricity or overheating a material to dissipate energy later.
  • Other Clean Sources: Unlike solar energy, sources like nuclear, hydroelectric, and geothermal can operate continuously and fill in the demand gap.

While grid managers study how to serve the new supply and demand, the duck curve is one of the greatest challenges facing renewable energy.

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Energy Shift

Visualizing the Scale of Global Fossil Fuel Production

How much oil, coal, and natural gas do we extract each year? See the scale of annual fossil fuel production in perspective.

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fossil fuel production

The Scale of Global Fossil Fuel Production

Fossil fuels have been our predominant source of energy for over a century, and the world still extracts and consumes a colossal amount of coal, oil, and gas every year.

This infographic visualizes the volume of global fossil fuel production in 2021 using data from BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy.

The Facts on Fossil Fuels

In 2021, the world produced around 8 billion tonnes of coal, 4 billion tonnes of oil, and over 4 trillion cubic meters of natural gas.

Most of the coal is used to generate electricity for our homes and offices and has a key role in steel production. Similarly, natural gas is a large source of electricity and heat for industries and buildings. Oil is primarily used by the transportation sector, in addition to petrochemical manufacturing, heating, and other end uses.

Here’s a full breakdown of coal, oil, and gas production by country in 2021.

Coal Production

If all the coal produced in 2021 were arranged in a cube, it would measure 2,141 meters (2.1km) on each side—more than 2.5 times the height of the world’s tallest building.

China produced 50% or more than four billion tonnes of the world’s coal in 2021. It’s also the largest consumer of coal, accounting for 54% of coal consumption in 2021.

Rank Country2021 Coal Production
(million tonnes)
% of Total
#1🇨🇳 China 4,126.050%
#2🇮🇳 India 811.310%
#3🇮🇩 Indonesia 614.08%
#4🇺🇸 U.S. 524.46%
#5🇦🇺 Australia 478.66%
#6🇷🇺 Russia 433.75%
#7🇿🇦 South Africa 234.53%
#8🇩🇪 Germany 126.02%
#9🇰🇿 Kazakhstan 115.71%
#10🇵🇱 Poland 107.61%
🌍 Other 600.97%
Total8,172.6100%

India is both the second largest producer and consumer of coal. Meanwhile, Indonesia is the world’s largest coal exporter, followed by Australia.

In the West, U.S. coal production was down 47% as compared to 2011 levels, and the descent is likely to continue with the clean energy transition.

Oil Production

In 2021, the United States, Russia, and Saudi Arabia were the three largest crude oil producers, respectively.

Rank Country2021 Oil Production
(million tonnes)
% of Total
#1🇺🇸 U.S. 711.117%
#2🇷🇺 Russia 536.413%
#3🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia 515.012%
#4🇨🇦 Canada 267.16%
#5🇮🇶 Iraq 200.85%
#6🇨🇳 China 198.95%
#7🇮🇷 Iran 167.74%
#8🇦🇪 UAE 164.44%
#9 🇧🇷 Brazil156.84%
#10🇰🇼 Kuwait 131.13%
🌍 Other 1172.028%
Total4221.4100%

OPEC countries, including Saudi Arabia, made up the largest share of production at 35% or 1.5 billion tonnes of oil.

U.S. oil production has seen significant growth since 2010. In 2021, the U.S. extracted 711 million tonnes of oil, more than double the 333 million tonnes produced in 2010.

Natural Gas Production

The world produced 4,036 billion cubic meters of natural gas in 2021. The above graphic converts that into an equivalent of seven billion cubic meters of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to visualize it on the same scale as oil and gas.

Here are the top 10 producers of natural gas in 2021:

Rank Country2021 Natural Gas Production
(billion m3)
% of Total
#1🇺🇸 U.S. 934.223%
#2🇷🇺 Russia 701.717%
#3🇮🇷 Iran 256.76%
#4🇨🇳 China 209.25%
#5🇶🇦 Qatar 177.04%
#6🇨🇦 Canada 172.34%
#7🇦🇺 Australia 147.24%
#8🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia 117.33%
#9🇳🇴 Norway 114.33%
#10🇩🇿 Algeria 100.82%
🌍 Other 1106.327%
Total4,036.9100%

The U.S. was the largest producer, with Texas and Pennsylvania accounting for 47% of its gas production. The U.S. electric power and industrial sectors account for around one-third of domestic natural gas consumption.

Russia, the next-largest producer, was the biggest exporter of gas in 2021. It exported an estimated 210 billion cubic meters of natural gas via pipelines to Europe and China. Around 80% of Russian natural gas comes from operations in the Arctic region.

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Mapped: Biggest Sources of Electricity by State and Province

The U.S. and Canada rely on a different makeup of sources to generate their electricity. How does each state and province make theirs?

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Mapped: Biggest Sources of Electricity by State and Province

On a national scale, the United States and Canada rely on a very different makeup of sources to generate their electricity.

The U.S. primarily uses natural gas, coal, and nuclear power, while Canada relies on both hydro and nuclear. That said, when zooming in on the province or state level, individual primary electricity sources can differ greatly.

Here’s a look at the electricity generation in the states and provinces of these two countries using data from the Nuclear Energy Institute (2021) and the Canada Energy Regulator (2019).

Natural Gas

Natural gas is widely used for electricity generation in the United States. Known as a “cleaner” fossil fuel, its abundance, coupled with an established national distribution network and relatively low cost, makes it the leading electricity source in the country.

In 2021, 38% of the 4120 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity generated in the U.S. came from natural gas. Not surprisingly, more than 40% of American states have natural gas as their biggest electricity source.

Here are some states that have the largest shares of natural gas-sourced electricity.

State/Province% of Electricity from Natural Gas
🇺🇸 Rhode Island90.9
🇺🇸 Delaware85.8
🇺🇸 Massachusetts76.9
🇺🇸 Florida73.9
🇺🇸 Mississippi72.1

In Canada, natural gas is only the third-biggest electricity source (behind hydro and nuclear), accounting for 11% of the 632 TWh of electricity produced in 2019. Alberta is the only province with natural gas as its main source of electricity.

Nuclear

Nuclear power is a carbon-free energy source that makes up a considerable share of the energy generated in both the U.S. and Canada.

19% of America’s and 15% of Canada’s electricity comes from nuclear power. While the percentages are close to one another, it’s good to note that the United States generates 6 to 7 times more electricity than Canada each year, yielding a lot more nuclear power than Canada in terms of gigawatt hours (GWh) per year.

As seen in the map, many states and provinces with nuclear as their main source of electricity are concentrated in the eastern half of the two countries.

In the U.S., Illinois, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina are top producers in terms of GWh/year. Illinois and South Carolina also have nuclear as their primary electricity source, whereas Pennsylvania’s electricity production from natural gas exceeds that from nuclear.

The vast majority of Canada’s nuclear reactors (18 of 19) are in Ontario, with the 19th in New Brunswick. Both of these provinces rely on nuclear as their biggest source of electricity.

Renewables: Hydro, Wind and Solar

Out of the different types of renewable electricity sources, hydro is the most prevalent in North America. For example, 60% of Canada’s and 6% of the U.S.’s electricity comes from hydropower.

Here are the states and provinces that have hydro as their biggest source of electricity.

State/Province% of Electricity from Hydro
🇨🇦 Manitoba 97
🇨🇦 Newfoundland and Labrador95
🇨🇦 Quebec94
🇨🇦 British Columbia87
🇨🇦 Yukon80
🇺🇸 Washington65
🇺🇸 Idaho51
🇺🇸 Vermont50
🇨🇦 Northwest Territories 47
🇺🇸 Oregon46

Wind and solar power collectively comprise a small percentage of total electricity generated in both countries. While no state or province relies on solar as its biggest source of electricity, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and South Dakota rely primarily on wind for their electricity, along with Canada’s Prince Edward Island (PEI).

Coal and Oil

Coal and oil are emission-heavy electricity sources still prevalent in North America.

Currently, 22% of America’s and 7% of Canada’s electricity comes from coal, with places such as Kentucky, Missouri, West Virginia, Saskatchewan, and Nova Scotia still relying on coal as their biggest sources of electricity.

Certain regions also use petroleum to generate their electricity. Although its use for this purpose is declining, it is still the biggest source of electricity in both Hawaii and Nunavut.

Over the next few years, it will be interesting to observe the use of these fossil fuels for electricity generation in the U.S. and Canada. Despite the differences in climate commitments between the two countries, lowering coal and oil-related emissions may be a critical part of hitting decarbonization targets in a timely manner.

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