Islands in the Vortex
Chapter 1 - Electricity and Islands
As I write this, the entire island of Puerto Rico may still be without electricity other than from generators. According to the Defense Department, The local power grid faced damage to 80 percent of the transmission system and 100 percent of the distribution system. It is not the only place in such straits. Many people on other Caribbean islands - both U.S. and non-U.S. - are suffering the same. And that big peninsula/island chain of ours that juts out toward Cuba is still trying to get back to some semblance of normalcy.
Not only did the recent hurricanes break records for so quickly rising in intensity and in geographic breadth, but they also created and then broke a new, albeit dubious record - after Harvey in Houston, and then non-stop coverage of Irma before it even arrived, and then a head fake by Jose, a lot of us just plain got "hurricaned-out", i.e. we just could not handle another one in the form of Marie. The media certainly felt that way, and most of the time, we think about what the media talks to us about.
There are two sides to islanding. In the Caribbean right now, there are islands that cannot fend for themselves when it comes to their power needs. Their grid is destroyed, and being an island, there is no grid at their borders to try to connect to so as to alleviate their situation. In that sense, we are seeing the extreme negative side of "islanding" - being totally on one's own.
But the other side of islanding is a positive one. A dynamic, localized grid filled with DER will be a resilient one with a lot of islanding ability. We can plan for that via moving fast to make policy changes that incentivize and support DER and Grid Mod and give "extra weight on the scale" for resiliency. But let's look at this topic a little bit more.
Chapter 2 - You and Richard Branson
One of the many crusades I have been on in recent years (or as some of you call them - my jihads) is to try to get everybody to think out of the box when it comes to how and when renewable energy, DER and grid modernization help address resiliency in a time of increasing intensity of extreme weather events.
I have seen some interesting media stories in the past couple of weeks that talk of how solar panels stayed on roofs in Florida, even given high winds, and provided power not only to their owners but also to neighbors. This makes sense, right? When the skies clear after a hurricane, an intact solar installation can start producing again. It doesn't have to have wires connected to a pole or for wires beyond that to be restored or reconstructed. That is cool, isn't it? (Restored A/C pun intended).
I have also heard stories of where there was local storage ahead of the storms that created a power reservoir that could be tapped once they passed. So if you have solar and storage then you could be even better off. You can actually own an island, even though it may not be of the type that you always dreamed of, or the type that Sir Richard owns where he rode things out in his wine cellar.
Chapter 3 - A Little Help From Your Friends
The majority of homeowners and businesses are not currently hosting some kind of DER. Many want (as they continue to express in surveys) electricity to simply be there when they want it and to not have to think about it in terms of having their own electricity "system".
But of course not everyone has to be such a host. A DER future does not mean a panel in every pot and two inverters in every garage (to garble an old political slogan). That is the beauty of community/neighborhood DER. It provides most of the advantages of a premise-DER, and in some cases provides additional benefits. You may not have your own island, but you can be part of one for resiliency purposes if the local DER is designed with resiliency in mind. You may have to share your island with others, but with obvious benefits.
Chapter 4 - Paying For It
Is the resilience benefit of DER properly valued for resiliency? No, and no. The first no means that I don't believe anywhere is doing it sufficiently if at all. The second no refers to the "bounce-back" definition of resiliency. With health, welfare and prosperity in our modern society and economy depending so much on electrification, efforts have to value speed when it comes to resiliency/restoration of the grid. That currently means getting the old system up and running. But that is costly, and you end up with the same system that you started with, which may not be any more resilient than before.
Chapter 5 - Instant Islands
Hmmm....is it possible that deployment of DER and renewable energy could part of an electricity restoration effort? Why not, at least on a local or community basis, swoop in with a DER kit that can quickly set up and put you use - even before the grid is restored?
Instead of the idea of "islanding" a microgrid or premise ahead of the storm, and taking care of one's own electricity needs during and after the event, why not look at a DER "pop-up" option where an island can be created in the midst of a widespread area of black-out where the grid has been devastated?
Now I am neither a power engineer nor a utility field person, so I may be talking some non-real world stuff here. (Some of you have accused me of doing that in the past). Some might argue that this would be costly and would make no sense once the conventional power system was put back in action. That could be true, so I am not saying that my idea would pass that test either. But is there a way that extreme weather events could be an opportunity to introduce DER to a particular location?
Chapter 6 - You, John Donne and Alexandre Dumas
But just as John said that no man is an island, a DER is not a grid. Our electricity system and grid is headed towards a DER future, but it can't be a future of island fiefdoms. It has to be a dynamic, interconnected, coordinated, and responsive grid.
Viewing the future from a different standpoint - that of a changing climate and the effect that that will have on weather and storms - none of those grid objectives can be optimally achieved without factoring in resiliency. In turn, none of those parameters are possible without DER. It all has to work together. As Alexandre had his boys say. "Grid for all, and all for the grid"...or something like that.
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