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Energy Insecurity: Are Microgrids the Solution?
Rolling blackouts in California and the extensive damage to the grid caused by Hurricane Laura or Isaias - have cost billions of dollars. Climate change will continue to exacerbate these issues, disrupting our economy as electricity demands increase in the summer and sea levels rise and spawn more frequent, intense storms, leaving utility regulators demanding an answer to the question: “How can we protect our communities and provide reliable electric service in the face of unprecedented natural disasters?”
If it feels like the lights are flickering out more than ever before – it’s because they are. Power outages increased 284% between 1984 and2014, and one only needs to look to 2020 to see how we’ve progressed in the last six years. Power outages are happening almost three times as often as they did when Steve Jobs introduced the original Mac and received spectacular reviews, even though all it was capable of reliably doing was displaying “HelloWorld.” While the Mac evolved into the iPhone, the American power grid decayed.
To put that into context, it’s important to think about how power outages impact people’s lives – especially the most vulnerable. The leading cause of death of Hurricane Laura, a category 4 that made landfall in Louisiana last month, was due to gas generators. Despite warnings that carbon monoxide emissions are deadly, eight of the 15hurricane-related deaths the Louisiana Department of Health confirmed as of early September were due to portable generators. And, because thousands are still without power in the aftermath of the storm, there’s still a risk of more deaths.
While generators provide life-saving power to those without it, preventing interruptions in the first place is a better solution. Energy experts agree the utility business model needs a refresh- and that means a system that is more resilient, affordable, and sustainable. As this need emerges, the economic landscape in the energy world is shifting –perhaps best shown by the astonishing drop in the cost of technologies like energy storage, solar PV panels, combined-cycle microturbines, and even demand-side resources like thermal storage. This suite of increasingly-economical technologies can be custom fit to address building-level challenges, or even macro-grid challenges, like through non-wires alternatives.
Increased Resilience with Microgrids
The importance of a reliable power grid is apparent. Society relies on it to provide energy 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s critical to our safety, society, and economic prosperity. Particularly, when the power grid is at risk for outages is when we need it most. In the cases cited above, rolling blackouts caused by a stressed grid during peak summer months in California is when residents needed reliable electricity to power traffic-lights, hospital ventilators, and HVAC to process the poor air conditions outside (due to the fires) to stay safe. And with the hurricanes, reliable access to power is critical for response-crews, emergency managers, and logistical coordinators. The reliability of the grid can mean life or death.
While distributed energy resources like microgrids are usually connected to the main power grid helping to reduce the load during periods of peak demand, they also provide a reliable backup to their owners during outages in “island mode.” This is a safer, more reliable backup than a traditional diesel generator for an uninterrupted flow of electricity. The cost per kilowatt-hour can be less than 1/10 the cost of a traditional, pad-mounted reciprocating diesel generator, depending on the cost and access to fuel. Not only can hospitals, military bases, universities, and other essential facilities benefit from a microgrid for a higher degree of resilience, but it provides increased independence from the main grid.
Microgrids increase local resilience for communities and facilities so they can meet their energy demands more independently. This leads to greater confidence in the power supply and increased reliability for essential operations. Microgrids should be strategically placed to maximize their value – considering both the community and the electric grid using tools like GIS. Other benefits that well-designed microgrids can offer include efficiency, cost savings, and the potential for being more environmentally friendly. These are upsides that shouldn’t be ignored when reconsidering utility plans.
Typically, to mitigate the risk to the grid’s power flow, utilities are prepared to react to a situation. But, risk can be mitigated by being proactive in planning for distributed energy resources(DER), like microgrids. This increased grid resilience leads to longer continuous uptimes and higher confidence in reliability. All of which is an expectation of the customers our utility clients serve.
K&A is making it easier for utilities to provide more resilient service and enable distributed energy resources (DER) by assisting clients to integrate and enable microgrid technologies. As utilities face a changing technology, regulatory and economic landscape, K&A is implementing new technologies and offerings in collaboration with our utility partners –offering the most advanced smart grid and DER technologies to ratepayers across the US.
Listen to Kyle Hass, Program Manager at K&A Engineering on the latest episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast. Kyle guides host Jason Price and producer Matt Chester on a tour of how DERs might have been able to minimize some of the negative grid impacts felt during the past few months in California, as well as provide suggestions for how California’s natural resources and utility infrastructure might be approached in the future to minimize wildfire risk and maximize the ability of the state’s utilities to provide reliability and resilience to their customers.
K&A Engineering Consulting, P.C.
Written by: Jessica Lang, K&A Engineering Social Media Consultant