Dawn Before the Darkness: What the Upcoming Solar Eclipse Means for Food Service Operators

On the morning of August 21st the sun over California will dim by about 70% as America experiences its first coast-to-coast solar eclipse since 1979. Back in the 70’s, solar was a futuristic technology, but now we are living in that future and on some days, California meets as much as 40% of its electric demand with solar power1. No one knows exactly what effect the loss of solar radiation will have on the State’s electric grid but best guesses put the loss of peak generation at about 6000 Megawatts or enough electricity to power up 6 million homes2.

Don’t worry, the folks who operate California’s electric grid have been planning for this event and will ramp up natural gas and hydroelectric generators to make up for the lost solar power. They do not anticipate any power outages or brown-outs but, they will have to keep a sharp eye on the continuously changing solar supply and adjust the power mix carefully as the moon’s shadow passes over the State2.

The eclipse will be a big event for astronomers and science nerds like me (I have already ordered my Bill Nye Eclipse Glasses) but, the spike in carbon output, as those natural gas-fired power plants are turned on, is kind of a bittersweet side effect. I plan to help ease the load on the grid that morning by turning off any unnecessary lights and deferring other electric use – like clothes washing and drying and dishwashing until later that evening.

As a commercial food service operator, you can do your part to make up for the missing solar by taking a few simple actions. As a bonus, you will also save money even when the solar comes back online and you will still be cutting carbon. Here are a few easy ways to save electricity:

  1. Install efficient lighting: If you haven’t already upgraded to LED lighting, now is the time. You can definitely screw in some LED replacement lamps between now and August 21st. For some really big bang-for-the-buck, replace those 60 watt incandescent Edison lamps with 4 watt LED Edison lamps – that’s a 15-fold reduction in electric power use. Also be sure to turn off any unneeded lights (empty dining rooms, storerooms, offices) or signage.

  2. Clean your refrigeration coils: Really dirty coils can double the electricity use of your coolers and freezers. It’s easy to clean the coils and it will also make your equipment last longer. This is particularly important since refrigeration energy use is directly related to outdoor temperature. If August 21st turns out to be a hot day, then clean coils will take even more load off the electric grid.

  3. Make sure the temperature in your refrigerators and freezers is set properly – don’t overcool – and during the eclipse, try not to load your boxes or run your defrost cycle. Keeping compressor use at a minimum that morning will take a big load of the system.

  4. Don’t turn your exhaust hoods on until you need them: Wait until you fire up your appliances before turning on your exhaust hoods. Running the hoods when they are not required is a waste of fan power.

  5. Service your air conditioning units: Poor maintenance is a major cause of rooftop AC unit failure and a drag on the electric grid. Get a preventive maintenance plan in place before the <21st and tune up your AC units. Then on the morning of the 21st, try to raise the AC setpoint a degree or two if possible – just until a little before noon. The sun will be close to full brightness by noon and you can lower the temperature for lunch service if you need to.

  6. Be very efficient with your Dishmachine operations: Load your racks as fully as possible so you run fewer racks through the machine. This is especially important for high temperature dishmachines that have both electric tank heaters and electric booster heaters.

There may be an effort by organizations opposed to renewable energy to use this eclipse as an example of why renewable energy is not a good idea. But, the bottom line is that the eclipse will not take down the electric system and it will not disrupt commercial food service operations. Still, if you believe that renewable energy is an important part of California’s energy future, and you are interested in limiting carbon emissions, saving money and sending a positive message, then please join me on Monday morning, August 21st as we walk lightly on our electric system and also step outside to witness a truly amazing astronomical phenomenon. You’ll be able to spot me – I’ll be the one with the nerdy Eclipse Glasses on!

1 A Solar Eclipse Could Wipe Out 9,000 Megawatts of Power Supplies by Naureen S Malik, July 13th 2017, Bloomberg Technology: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-07-14/a-solar-eclipse-could-wipe-out-9-000-megawatts-of-power-supplies

2 Solar power will take a hit during the Aug. 21 eclipse, June 9th 1017, Washington Post Health and Science: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/solar-power-will-take-a-hit-during-the-aug-21-eclipse/2017/06/09/0f43c9aa-4c7c-11e7-9669-250d0b15f83b_story.html?utm_term=.f6207dadd498