Are our smart grid hopes misplaced?

It’s been well over a week since Hurricane Sandy hit the eastern seaboard of the U.S., causing power outages for more than 8 million utility customers. As it should be, the initial focus has been on restoring power and rebuilding the existing grid infrastructure.

First, even after 17 years as an energy industry analyst, I’m not an expert on the design and operation of electric utility transmission and distribution networks; however, I’ve got some ideas and opinions that are grounded in the market research I’ve been involved with since the pre-smart grid days when my colleagues and I referred (somewhat cryptically) to a “geodesic network for energy delivery.” 

As we all know, New York City, Long Island and the New Jersey shore were hit particularly hard by Hurricane Sandy. Major parts of lower Manhattan were without power for a week, and most likely it will take weeks more to restore power to all the customers impacted by this storm. As of Nov. 8, there were still more than 700,000 customers without power. Our thanks go out to the tireless utility employees and contractors who are doing their best to fix a critically injured grid. As we recover from this disaster, what should we be considering to mitigate or avoid similar disasters?

Whether you believe climate change is caused by human activity or not, severe weather events such as hurricanes and derechos are becoming more frequent and more severe. The Northeast was hit by Hurricane Irene last year. In June a derecho hit the Washington, D.C., area and left more than 1 million customers without power. One hundred-year storms are happening annually. Our power grid was not designed to withstand these events without widespread, long-lasting outages. As an industry, we are capable of heroic efforts through the utility mutual assistance network and other resources to restore power and rebuild infrastructure. But does it make sense to keep doing this without considering other options?

A typical reaction of many politicians and officials after major storm-caused outages is to call for buried power lines; however, this can be very costly and might have other problems. According to an article in The Washington Post, a 2010 study found that the cost to bury all power lines in the D.C. area would cost $5.8 billion and would add $226 to each customer’s electric bill for 10 years. Costs vary widely across geographic regions, but it’s never inexpensive. Putting the infrastructure underground also does not guarantee it won’t be susceptible to storm-caused outages. The recent outages in lower Manhattan were caused by flooding of Con Edison’s underground infrastructure.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, numerous articles have been published on how the smart grid can help utilities avoid storm-caused outages and recover more quickly. An article in the MIT Technology Review points out that Pepco, which serves the Washington, D.C., area, was using smart meters to locate outages more quickly and ping meters to verify that service had been restored, rather than sending out a crew or calling customers. This is great, but it wouldn’t have helped New York and New Jersey utilities all that much.

For a smart grid to help avoid or mitigate major storm outages, you need: 1) a grid (major parts of the grid in New York and New Jersey were destroyed), and 2) a functioning communications network (which also can be knocked out by a major storm). I’m convinced a smarter grid will lessen the impact of major storms, but I’m not convinced it’s the best technology option. Which raises the question: When it comes to severe weather, are our smart grid hopes misplaced?

I think the answer lies in a much greater use of distributed energy resources integrated as part of smart buildings and community microgrids.

As pointed out by William Pentland in a Forbes blog, Co-op City in the Bronx, which includes 35 buildings and 14,000 apartments, did not lose power during Hurricane Sandy. It turns out that Co-op City has a 40-MW combined heat and power (CHP) plant. Similarly, most of New York University’s buildings in lower Manhattan did not lose power thanks to the university’s recently commissioned CHP plant.

Distributed energy resources such as fuel cells and microturbines that run on natural gas are becoming increasingly competitive with grid power on a cost and reliability basis. Because they are fueled by natural gas, their emissions are much lower than traditional diesel-fueled standby generation, and the glut of shale gas in the U.S. is keeping natural gas prices low. As an added benefit, the natural gas grid of pipelines is more storm-resistant than the electric grid, although this area warrants further study. Government and utilities should seriously consider programs to expand quickly the deployment of distributed energy resources through direct investment, engineering assistance for utility customers, public-private partnerships, loans or other financing options, changes to local building codes and other incentives.

Previous articleAlstom to provide generators for combined cycle power plant
Next articleIn Chile, mining boom expands electricity market

No posts to display