Hurricane Resistant Electric Systems? Building Resilient Microgrids
Senior Fellow, ISE
President, Future Energy Advisors
Of the 35 Category 5 hurricanes known to have occurred in the Atlantic Ocean since 1924, 5 of them (14% of storms) have occurred in the last 3 years (3% of recorded history). With climate change generally thought to be driving increased frequency and intensity of storms, this trend will likely continue – and may well even worsen.
Each of these powerful storms wreaks massive devastation on human-built infrastructure. This is especially true on islands, which are more exposed to damage from winds, storm surges, and flooding, and are also logistically more difficult to reconstruct.
“If the Bahamas or Puerto Rico had been equipped with microgrids prior to Dorian last month or Maria two years ago, almost certainly the loss of electricity service would not have been as widespread, and the return of service to most residents would have been more quickly achieved.”
Any catastrophic hurricane almost always wipes out large sections of an island’s power grid. This is particularly devastating because one of the very first and most essential foundations of any disaster recovery is electricity supply. Even before anything resembling a return to commercial and social normalcy can be achieved, without electricity it is much more difficult for rescue crews to do their work, for hospitals to help the wounded, and for workers to begin even the initial steps of rebuilding.
Among the most effective strategies for enhancing electric system robustness and resilience is the adoption of “microgrids.” While it’s not possible to prevent all disruptions in electricity service in the face of sustained 180-mph winds, it is at least possible to structure a utility system to be more robust, both against damage in the first place and in restoration after the storm. Rather than serving a region via one interconnected grid, it is increasingly feasible to design and operate multiple smaller grids. Each of these microgrids can operate on its own to be self-reliant in emergencies, but usually runs interconnected with other neighboring grids under normal circumstances to maximize efficiencies.
Each localized area served by its own microgrid can fend for itself, rather than being taken down in a cascading fashion when the overall grid is no longer stable. If the Bahamas or Puerto Rico had been equipped with microgrids prior to Dorian last month or Maria two years ago, almost certainly the loss of electricity service would not have been as widespread, and the return of service to most residents would have been more quickly achieved.
But it’s not just islands that can benefit from microgrids. In the wake of Superstorm Sandy in 2012, many communities in the Northeastern U.S. became acutely aware of their electricity system vulnerabilities after outages lasted days and even weeks. Other regional disasters, such as the wildfires in California over the past few years, have further illustrated how intolerable a prolonged loss of power is to modern society.
In response, a growing number of municipalities are adopting “community microgrids” to ensure continued service for critical facilities such as police/fire stations, hospitals, community centers, and even retailers of essential goods like groceries and gasoline. In communities where these microgrids have been adopted, residents will have access to these necessities, which are served on a dedicated circuit that includes sufficient localized generation and energy storage to operate on a stand-alone basis from the broader regional grid, for extended periods if necessary.
Microgrids are emerging more prominently as an option now because of recent dramatic improvements in the costs of small-scale electricity generation – especially solar energy when paired with energy storage – and the development of digital technologies that make seamless switching of electric circuits more realistic to accomplish.
Indeed, this “grid-of-grids” architecture enabled by microgrids is also likely to become a key approach to better ensuring secure electricity supply against cyberthreats, which are expected to proliferate in the decades to come.
As these technologies continue to improve, expect to see more microgrids – not only in island economies for which microgrids will more frequently be called upon, but also coming to locations near you – given the ever-growing reliance of our digitized economy on continuous availability of electricity supply.
Richard Stuebi, a non-resident senior fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Energy, is founder and President of Future Energy Advisors (FEA), a management consulting practice providing advisory services to corporate clients pursuing innovative growth strategies related to energy. Prior to founding FEA, Richard was Vice President, US Strategy & Group Technology at National Grid.
The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Boston University Institute for Sustainable Energy.
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