Electrical infrastructure is the backbone of our country. When working well, it is taken for granted. Our lights remain on, traffic flows and businesses run. However, as San Francisco’s recent power outage demonstrated, the electrical system is becoming increasingly fragile. A single circuit breaker failure disrupted the Bay Area’s more than 90,000 residents, thrusting our aging electrical infrastructure into the spotlight and jumpstarting a national discussion on its well-being.
In fact, our country’s electrical infrastructure is graded a D+ by the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) 2017 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, showcasing the economic, safety and productivity impact of our aging infrastructure. The San Francisco outage underscores the importance of modernizing and more tightly integrating our electrical infrastructure—from utility grid-scale generation to the home or business and the distribution system in between.
Our electrical systems quite literally power the overall health and prosperity of our country, from the economy to health care. However, the current way of generating, distributing, consuming and managing energy is not sustainable. As our world of energy undergoes a massive transformation driven by the growth of digitization, decentralization and decarbonization, now is the time for change. We have the opportunity to redefine the basics of power generation and distribution and put a greater focus on efficiency, reliability, safety, security and performance.
This shift toward a new energy landscape enables us to embrace the new technologies that allow us to upgrade existing infrastructure and modernize the system, while introducing greater sustainability. These technologies—from smart circuit breakers to 21st century grids—provide enhanced intelligence, allowing us to better predict and prevent equipment and system level failures and outages before they happen and safely take the equipment out of service before people or assets are harmed. Additionally, in circumstances where a failure occurs without warning, new technologies can limit the impact of the outage, the number of people and assets affected and the time to restoration. At the same time, modernizing the electrical system allows us to take advantage of technologies that can integrate renewables and other distributed energy resources (DER) to add low-carbon resources more holistically throughout the power system.
For example, at the facility level, data from connected assets drives intelligence for proactive operations management. By taking advantage of this connectivity and layering on software and analytics, operators can better predict anomalies and more proactively schedule maintenance activities that will help create a safer, more resilient, highly available and more efficient electrical system and facility.
Simple microgrid systems can protect a single home or facility, or scale to power an entire community in the event of an outage. Microgrids that integrate DER like solar, wind, battery storage and combined heat and power (CHP) resources add resiliency without a costly replacement of electrical equipment.
Businesses and communities play a major role in driving the implementation of technologies that mitigate the financial and safety risks of our unreliable and strained electrical infrastructure. Consumers and businesses alike can implement smart home and building technologies to close the infrastructure gap. This creates a direct link between the utility and its ratepayers, while providing next-generation tools that allow both businesses and consumers to take control of their own demand and play a bigger role in managing the stress on the grid.
With energy demand only forecasted to grow, it is imperative we take proactive steps toward a more resilient electrical system now. This means adding technologies that provide value on both the generation and demand side of the grid. By adopting grid-edge technology like microgrids and focusing on other electrical infrastructure upgrades to transmission and distribution equipment (in-facility and out), we can spur true system transformation—introducing new levels of resiliency, speeding up recovery time after an outage and even preventing catastrophic failures. Fully embracing the shift to decentralized generation, a two-way flow of decarbonized energy and more digitization for flexible, dynamic energy management gives us the opportunity to redefine the future of our electrical infrastructure with resiliency at the center.
About the authors: Mark Feasel is responsible for Schneider Electric’s Smart Grid activities in North America which are focused on optimizing energy efficiency, resiliency, and sustainability from the electric utility control center through a consumer’s loads. Mark’s experience with microgrid began in the 1980’s when he was responsible for the operation and maintenance of the electrical systems associated with the nuclear reactor on a ballistic missile submarine.
John Blaylock is the vice president of operations for Schneider Electric in West Chester, Ohio. John has business responsibility for the Legacy Equipment Modernization and Consulting Services activities for North America, which includes manufacturing facilities in Cincinnati, Ohio; East Haven, Connecticut; Livermore, California; and Houston, Texas