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Jul 18, 2012

A Crisis is a Terrible Thing to Waste


Downed power lineBeginning on June 29th, a brief but violent storm swept from the Midwest to the Mid-Atlantic, disabling electricity to the masses. The storm toppled trees and branches into power lines and knocked out transmission towers and electrical substations, leaving more than 3.8 million people without power, some for more than a week.

The recent heat wave compounded the issue. The sweltering 100+ F temperatures made the loss of electricity almost unbearable. Pepco, the utility serving Maryland and the District of Columbia, alone spent an estimated 300,000 man-hours to restore power to all of its customers.

But if indications from climate models are correct, increasingly extreme weather events may become the new normal, forcing us to reevaluate the ability of the electric grid to keep the lights on and the ice cream frozen.

Hot Temps and Wild Storms: Recipe for Outages

Heat waves and storms have always existed, and to date, the grid has survived more or less intact. Moreover, very few scientists would go so far as to say that climate change had caused a specific storm or a specific temperature record.

However, not recognizing that temperatures are increasing is a dangerous proposition. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration recently released its state of the climate report, noting that the 12-month stretch between July of 2011 and June of 2012 was the warmest year in the contiguous United States since recordkeeping began in 1895.

Not surprisingly, since January 1st, wildfires fires have incinerated more than 2.7 million acres across the U.S., threatening lives and property. In RMI’s home state of Colorado, the Waldo Canyon blaze near Colorado Springs destroyed more than 340 homes, and is on record as the most destructive fire in the state’s history.

As temperatures rise, so do the risks of electricity outages. To support the growing demand for cooling requirements, grids will become increasingly congested and prone to failure. Stopgap solutions (building more gas plants to power the increased demand) are possible, but may only worsen the effects of climate change, creating a vicious cycle fueled by our reliance on fossil fuels to power our lives.

To make matters worse, the grid is aging and vulnerable even without natural disasters. Last year, the entire Southwestern United States experienced a 1.6 million-person blackout when a single worker accidentally tripped a transmission line. (Yet the University of California San Diego’s microgrid was able to keep many lights on; watch video to find out how.)

Identifying the Opportunity

It’s time to kill two birds with one stone. The grid needs to be upgraded and powered with cleaner sources of power. Fortunately, we can simultaneously adapt to a more flexible and reliable grid while also reducing electricity’s contribution to climate change. The National Renewable Energy Lab recently concluded that it is entirely possible for renewable technologies to supply more than 80 percent of total U.S. electricity in 2050. NREL is not alone. In Reinventing Fire, RMI outlines how a highly renewable and reliable grid is not only possible, but also cost competitive.

However, to achieve these visions of the future, significant investments in the control and management systems in the distribution grid are needed. Luckily, emerging technologies are opening up a world of possibilities.

For instance, imagine a grid that is threatened by storms. By knowing the exact moment and location that a falling tree takes out a wire, utilities can reduce the duration of or even prevent outages. EPB, the municipal utility established by the City of Chattanooga in Tennessee, successfully weathered its own recent storms with its upgraded smart grid systems. Newly installed feeder switches sensed disruptions in real time, successfully isolated network faults and cut the number of customers affected by storm-related outages in half compared to what would have been the case with previous technology.

On the other side of the country, California utilities are beefing up their own distribution systems. Pacific Gas & Electric, for instance, installed a system of high-speed communications control software, and within a year, this system has already prevented an outage near the town of Rio Vista.

For a specific class of customers, even more can be done. Local investments in energy management and control systems can make dramatic contributions to a resilient grid. Microgrids, such as those at UCSD and at military bases, are already demonstrating the benefits of improved control and management capabilities. A microgrid with onsite generation, storage, and load control can manage local resources to meet essential needs during an outage, even in the event of a wider grid blackout. In grid emergencies, some microgrid control systems can relieve grid stress by reducing electricity demand, by exporting power to the grid, or by islanding itself temporarily until conditions stabilize.

Making Smart Choices Now for the Future

Innovative opportunities exist for the electric grid, and a growing number of people are realizing that delays in grid investments could prove to be penny wise and pound-foolish. The actions of utilities and regulators, however, will determine how smooth the transition is to a more resilient and renewable system. Utilities will need to aggressively continue piloting intelligent technologies, perhaps adapting their business models enabled by the new communications. Regulators, while holding utilities accountable for grid expenditures, must also support the much needed investments and innovation for future generations.

And as for the average citizen, the choice is simple. You can do nothing: you can continue paying the electric bill, occasionally pausing to grumble about electricity cost or reliability. Or, you can learn more about the electricity system (like Newt Gingrich), and request (perhaps even demand) grid upgrades that will protect against storms and enable a greater use of renewables.

eLab logoRMI is working to reinvent the electric system, recently launching the Electricity Innovation Lab, a collaborative engagement to address the technical, institutional, and regulatory challenges of achieving an electricity system that is more clean, secure, and reliable for all. We heartily welcome your input.

Whatever you decide, remember that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

How has this year’s weather affected you and what can you do about it?

Highlighted Resources

Black out

Lights out in San Diego: A Case to 
Reexamine the Future of our Grid


Solar pic

Introducing the Electricity Innovation Lab

UCSD Thumb

The UCSD Microgrid - Showing the Future of Electricity ... Today


eLab Logo

Find Out More About eLab


 Photo courtesy of the Washington Examiner.



Showing 1-1 of 1 comments

July 26, 2012

"A Crisis IS a Terrible Thing to WASTE !"
But don't tell me that we need to upgrade the electrical power grid simply to accommodate Electric Cars. According to a survey of Tesla Automobile owners over 60% of them charge only at home with 120V AC from a standard home outlet. And note that a four slice toaster uses Electricity at a higher rate than an Electric Car. My interpretation is that the Electric Utility Companies are using Electric Cars for an excuse to request funding, (GRANT MONEY PREFERRED) to update the equipment they have been failing to replace as the system aged for the past 70 years. They have been paying Dividends to the stockholders (Including the upper level management who are all stockholders) instead of reinvesting more into the "Physical Plant" (Equipment) . I also feel all the digital information gathering equipment does not have a place in my garage so that I can have a "Level 2" EVSE installation. and that is why more Popular EXSE cost almost $3,000 plus installation but I can install an alternative system without their information gathering and transmittal equipment for only $750. and no installation by an electrician required , just plug it into the dryer outlet and plug the dryer into the EVSE auxiliary outlet.
Here is how to do that !!

A simple solution for homeowners and renters in homes built less than 30 years ago or updated to a modern electric service of 100 amps (Or more, as 150 and 200, are also typical.) @ 208/240 V AC as is normally found in homes in the USA, and with the inclusion of a NEMA 14-30 "Dryer Outlet." The home is ready for EV charging !
The Electric clothes dryer is used perhaps two hours a week total, and an electric car is usually charged while you sleep and the dryer is not in use. I propose using a plug to fit that "Dryer Outlet." (Everything that plugs in is an extension cord or an appliance and not subject to U.L. approval as a unit!) The Plug comes with molded on "Pig Tail" about two feet long. Connect "Pigtail" to a switch box with a properly rated, double throw switch. To one set of contacts connect a second NEMA 14-30 "Dryer Outlet" and on the other a suitable length of surface mountable cable routed to a "J1772 (Level 2 )" unit from retail purchase now available for $999 at Lowes, $750 at Home Depot and some at $500 and below from other sources. The switch is mounted near the existing "Dryer Outlet" and the new Dryer outlet in a suitable enclosure is mounted within reach of the cloths dryer's cord so it can be plugged in. the switch is wired to let us choose "Dryer" or “Recharging.” Because this is all simply an extension cord/appliance no building permits or licensed electrician is mandated (If the homeowner is not comfortable doing this kind of work a "Qualified" person such as a handyman or electrician can be hired to assemble the items and connecting the wires, and mounting the units on the wall.) The assembly can be removed and transferred or sold when moving, because it does not become part of the Real-Estate, in most jurisdictions. And the total cost is thousands less than the permanent installation which must be left behind, as it is wired in, and thus is part of the Real-Estate, and as such cannot be removed when moving. All the components are available "on the shelf" at Lowes and Home Depot and many electrical supplier's stores although not all stock the "J1772 (level 2)" EVSE units.

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