Utilities and us: toward an energy ‘ecosystem’

Contributor: Phil Carson

As a nor’easter carrying snow further delayed the remaining work in restoring power to homes and businesses in the Northeast after Hurricane Sandy, and grid resiliency will remain a hot topic for the foreseeable future, let’s take a look at some insights from the past week.

In my recent article, “After Storm, Power Sector at Crossroads,” I suggested that the media had raised good questions but that good answers would take time. Perhaps a fact-finding panel akin to the one convened after the 2003 blackout in the Northeast would be appropriate, as would a rational look at the causes of more frequent extreme weather events, I mused. The subtext, of course, was the role of smart grid technology in the face of Hurricane Sandy’s destruction.

One reader said, essentially, that smarts aren’t the answer. This reader would have local utilities invest, instead, in low-tech grid hardening.

“Here in the leafy and heavily damaged suburbs of New Jersey, I’ve had plenty of dark time to ponder just what aspects of the `Smart Grid’ would have helped prevent catastrophic damage and reduce restoration times.

“Our problems from Hurricane Sandy, and the preceding storms last year are physical and not due to lack of information or technology. We had great weather forecasting and plenty of opportunities to prepare. I don’t see where, or how, smarter sensing equipment, transformer monitoring equipment or faster SCADA systems would have had an impact.

“In fact, in this case, smarter hasn’t been better. One of the larger problems in our area has been spotty or non-existent cell service. This has been crippling and is an illustration of the dangers of reliance on technology devices for infrastructure needs. The cell problem is intertwined with the power problem, literally and figuratively, as cell towers need power to operate, and the same wires that take down the power lines also take down the alternative communications technologies of the Internet (cable) and landline. It has been a perfect storm for communications as well as power.

“It is now obvious that in addition to re-thinking how distribution grids should be designed, we also have to worry how power failures also impact cell, landline and cable networks. This isn’t yet even a metering issue since PSE&G [New Jersey’s largest utility] and ConEd [serving New York City and environs] are not yet using smart meters. I am glad that our local utilities don’t have to waste time on fanciful time-of-use TOU billing schemes and can focus on rebuilding substations to be above flood stage.”

In “Sandy: The Power Sector’s 9/11,” I was a little hyperbolic over the implications for the grid: hardening, resiliency, a “strategic retreat” from the coast? Which way to go? Our answers will determine whether the United States is focused on energy mastery and, thus, retains world leadership.

Larry Karisny, of digital communities, was optimistic that smart grid technology played a role in restoration after the storm and that other issues can be addressed.

“At Joe Weiss’ ICS (Industrial Control System) Security Conference last month your points on grid resiliency and reliability were well taken. I might add that some results are coming in about smart meters and how they helped restore service in Hurricane Sandy. We are just beginning to learn the benefits of the Smart Grid. I agree we have a way to go in improving our power grid’s resiliency and survivability. I did see in the conference that we have the brilliant ideas and people to do it.”

John Cooper, partner in NextWatt Solutions, said that resources need to be redirected from traditional hardening and resiliency for the grid to realize bigger gains.

“To build a sustainable 21st-century electric ecosystem, we need to lean on three other sources of innovation, financing, and resilience.

“First, energy users have a far larger role to play in bringing their buildings up to a new standard of energy efficiency and energy self-sufficiency to eliminate peaks and free up capital to spend on hardening and modernizing the grid. Driving peak down will free up inefficient uses of capital to shore up the grid. Second, energy technology providers must continue to craft more efficient energy tools and leverage new business models to drive new capabilities on the demand side.

“The government and Department of Defense, in particular, has proven itself to be a good incubator of new technologies (e.g., DARPA) in the past and can play a role here.

“Finally, microgrids and emerging energy communities like Brooklyn’s Coop City, which stayed operational throughout the Sandy blackout, offer promising demand-side alternatives to grid power. Utilities must embrace such new approaches from these three groups by opening up and cooperating with integration challenges.”

I like Cooper’s phrase, “a sustainable, 21st-century electric ecosystem,” because like biological ecosystems that include the notion of symbiosis, or mutual dependence and benefit, which well describes the relationship between, say, supply and load generally or grid and microgrid specifically. As an avid backcountry explorer who sometimes spends two weeks off the grid, I’m a stickler for self-sufficiency. So, moving from the edge of the grid inward, end-user preparedness, distributed generation, microgrids, islanding and more flexible interplay between supply and load all make a lot of sense. Sure, that is part of the smart grid vision, a few steps ahead of where we are today. But an ecosystem also implies that various players will step up to make it a reality.

It doesn’t make sense to expect utilities to bear the entire burden. What we need is for utilities to accommodate these alternative models, just as San Diego Gas & Electric has accommodated (and benefited from) the microgrid run by the University of California San Diego. Recognizing the benefits, UCSD is working on scaling microgrid capabilities both up and down to serve larger entities such as towns and cities, while also empowering individuals at their homes and businesses.

If utilities merely focus on the existing grid and its ability to accommodate bi-directional power flows and innumerable, self-sufficient nodes, the burden of “innovation, financing and resilience,” in Cooper’s words, can be spread and shared, producing that ecosystem.

This article first appeared on Intelligent Utility and can be accessed here.

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