Managing Solar Photovoltaic Integration in the Western United States: Power System Flexibility Requirements and Supply

Jennie Jorgenson, Elaine Hale, Brady Cowiestoll

Research output: NRELTechnical Report


As penetrations of variable renewable energy generation technologies such as wind and solar photovoltaics (PV) continue to increase across the United States, greater uncertainty and variability in the net load often lead to a concern about how power systems may adapt. Managing the system net load (i.e., load minus contribution from variable generation technologies) may become more challenging with increasing variable generation, as the magnitude and frequency of net ramps increase. However, there is inherent flexibility in power systems through the conventional generator fleet (under least-cost unit commitment and economic dispatch), less-conventional generation sources (e.g., storage, demand response, concentrating solar power with thermal energy storage), and imports and exports with neighbors. In this analysis, we create an open-source tool to analyze the flexibility of the results of a specific commercial unit commitment and economic dispatch tool (PLEXOS), but the code can be applied generically as well. The tool assesses the flexibility requirements (or demand) of a system through a net load analysis. The constraints and limitations of each generator are then considered to determine the availability (or supply) of flexibility. Then, the supply and demand of flexibility are compared to gain a more complete picture of potential flexibility concerns. We apply this open-source tool to high-penetration PV scenarios constructed for three focus regions in the western United States defined using the Resource Planning Model (RPM) capacity expansion modeling tool: RPM-OR, RPM-CO, and RPM-AZ. Generally, we find few flexibility concerns, as the western United States represents a large and interconnected power system with significant inherent flexibility. In addition, the PV scenarios we analyzed are overbuilt on capacity, leaving plenty of ramping ability on the system. We do find that for each focus region, the impact of imports on meeting ramping needs is essential. This means the PV integration in each focus region impacts the entire rest of the system. Each system has different dominant sources of flexibility. The conventional generator fleet (especially coal and gas combined-cycle technologies) as well as less-conventional sources such as storage are all shown to be important sources of flexibility. The scenarios evaluated here were designed to study the planning and operations impact of high solar penetration in each of three focus regions. However, none of the three focus regions likely will deploy PV in isolation, meaning the ability of imports and exports to provide flexibility may be considerably different in scenarios with strong PV deployment in every region. Overall, we intend that the framework we present here will be useful in future analysis of other system evolutions to identify whether and how flexibility may constrain the successful deployment of variable generation technologies.
Original languageAmerican English
Number of pages42
StatePublished - 2020

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/TP-6A20-72471


  • generator ramping
  • net-load ramping
  • power system flexibility
  • PV
  • solar photovoltaics
  • Western United States


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