We got a gig! California solar takes the edge off peak energy demand

The impact of California’s utility-scale solar projects — 1 megawatt and up — helped the state get through its recent heat wave by pumping a full gigawatt of power into the grid.

The California Independent System Operator – which manages the grid — announced the high point today,  saying that three days in recent weeks, large-scale solar in the state reached the 1 gigawatt mark or higher.

One gigawatt is 1,000 megawatts, and 1 megawatt can power about 750 houses — so one gig is 750,000 houses.

The ISO is claiming that’s a new national record for solar production.

“The beauty of solar power is it comes when you need it the most,” said Stephanie McCorkle, the ISO’s director of communication. ”Right at that air-conditioning rush hour, typically we see the peak of solar.”

The Coachella Valley did its bit — with Solar Power Inc.’s 2.2 megawatt project in North Palm Springs pumping its electrons into the grid, according to Mike Anderson, a company spokesman.

What we don’t know is how much power smaller, roof-top solar installations have been generating on the local level — also taking strain off the grid because those houses are not needing extra power during peak hours. The ISO does’t track that, McCorkle said.

While 1 gigawatt is impressive, it’s still a relatively small percentage of total power demand. On Friday, solar power hit 1.076 gigawatts, but the peak demand was 40.5 gigawatts, McCorkle said, meaning solar made up 2.6 percent of power on the grid.

Think about how much power might be generated once projects such as the 550-megawatt Desert Sunlight or 250-megawatt Genesis projects now under construction east of the Coachella Valley come on line.

We’ll be lighting up and cooling off the state — or at least a good chunk of it.