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To Keep the Lights on During Blackouts, Austin Explores Microgrids

To Keep the Lights on During Blackouts, Austin Explores Microgrids

The city is connecting rooftop solar installations and storage batteries to increase resilience during storms and heat waves, By John FialkaE&E News on October 3, 2019

The Department of Energy and the nation’s utilities are exploring ways to make cities more resilient in the face of mounting and costly blackouts from severe storms and heat waves that are increasing with climate change.

They will use of a variety of relatively new features appearing in urban grids, including large storage batteries, a rising number of rooftop solar installations, and new computer-controlled programs and switches. They will also ask for help from homeowners.

Some utilities are already promoting devices such as two-way controls on air conditioners, thermostats and even electric water heaters to reduce consumer power demand on super-warm days.

The most ambitious effort would give control to a local utility to make a rapid grid reconfiguration at the onset of a blackout. It will attempt to collect and distribute enough renewable energy to support an “island,” or smaller area of the grid that can quickly repower hospitals, police and fire stations, and other emergency centers.

The stage for this experiment is called the Mueller neighborhood in the east-central part of Austin, Texas, a large modern housing development started in 1999 on the runways of what was the city’s former municipal airport. Mueller has many pieces of the puzzle that might be needed, including a proliferation of new homes with rooftop solar arrays and a recently installed large battery storage system that Austin’s municipal utility, Austin Energy, helped acquire with a federal grant.

Austin’s first goal was to use the neighborhood and the big battery to help expand its reliance on renewable energy to 65% by 2027. Austin Energy has already started using the battery, installed on the edge of the Mueller neighborhood, to collect enough solar power to help it meet increased electricity demand during spates of 100 degree days.

“We’re also using it to do energy arbitrage,” said Cameron Freberg, a strategist for the utility. The battery collects and delivers solar power for use during the day, when electricity rates are high. The system recharges at night with cheap wind power from the grid, so it’s ready for the next day’s struggle to keep up with air conditioning demands.

In June, DOE offered Austin Energy part of a $5 million grant for a more complex challenge. It is to create “flexible energy pathways” from the solar arrays on the homes in Mueller, so that they might be tapped for electricity during a blackout. To do that, the local utility is joining a larger team sharing the DOE grant to explore prompt ways to minimize a storm-caused blackout.

My Observation:

Great idea, but with a long list of 'cons' not the least is the need for a sunshine once in a while, occasionally, and batteries for 75% of any given 24 hours period, providing there are such large batteries, we have room for storing those and money to buy them in the first place.

Reference: "DOE offered Austin Energy part of a $5 million grant for a more complex challenge."

I recommend buying $700 combustion engine-generator with 12 hours tank at Costco and storing two 5 gallons fuel (24 hours’ worth) for a rainy day.

The root cause here is not a storm, but rather extremely weak grid caused by more renewable, solar and wind, and less base-load fossil-fueled power plants (Nukes, coal and gas fired).

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/to-keep-the-lights-on-during-blackouts-austin-explores-microgrids/

Noam Mayraz's picture

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Discussions

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 4, 2019 11:23 am GMT

Great idea, but with a long list of 'cons' not the least is the need for a sunshine once in a while, occasionally, and batteries for 75% of any given 24 hours period, providing there are such large batteries, we have room for storing those and money to buy them in the first place.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but in reading this article it does not sound like the goal of this microgrid project is to have a microgrid that's run on renewables + storage 24 hours per day, but to have the ability to self-generated and distribute the energy that is collected & stored renewable in the event of a blackout. The battery cited would be pretty much stored at 100% capacity at all times as it's charged repeatedly by the available solar so it would be ready to deploy at a moment's notice in case of a blackout-- so if the blackout happened after a few days of cloudy weather then the battery will still have reached full charge ahead of time. Of course if there's an extended extreme situation that battery will be depleted (as would your suggested reserves of fuel to have on-site), but the goal is to keep those high-importance assets (like hospitals) running in the immediate aftermath

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 4, 2019 2:53 pm GMT

There's no reason the expense, maintenance, and complexity of multiple microgrids is warranted on a properly-run and maintained grid with five nines reliability (99.999%).

Hospitals and essential services already have backup diesel generators. If our goal is prevent carbon emissions from the .001% percent of the time the grid is down, the carbon footprint of building our batteries, shipping them across the Pacific from China, and building the microgrids will outweigh hundreds of years of blackouts.

Harden the existing grid, then invest in carting solar panels and wind turbines off to the hazardous waste dump. They cause more problems than they solve.

Noam Mayraz's picture
Noam Mayraz on Oct 4, 2019 7:34 pm GMT

Bob, you lost me altogether.  We do not have storage batteries, if we had them the service life would be very short, at best 1/10 of "hundred" years.  Batteries are expensive and required huge storage space.

Diesel generators generate miniscule amount pollution.  Batteries are environmental hazard and require special handling for disposal.  There is a lot of talk about storage batteries - just talk, no substance yet. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 5, 2019 2:36 pm GMT

Noam, maybe I wasn't clear:

"...the carbon footprint of building our batteries, shipping them across the Pacific from China, and building the microgrids will outweigh hundreds of years of blackouts."

By "outweigh" I meant "it would be worse than burning diesel fuel, during infrequent blackouts, for hundreds of years."

Noam Mayraz's picture
Noam Mayraz on Oct 4, 2019 7:26 pm GMT

Matt, I met Scott Hinson in San Antonio, Texas on Aug 28th-29th, and was impressed with understanding of the issues.

We do not have grid batteries, the batteries we use for grid support are for quality applications, low voltage ride through, frequency and power factor corrections.

The discussion was around the Tesla home batteries - Powerwall and Powerpack.  Those are advertised as power storage, but Steve Hinson explained that those are actually used for power factor correction (at the home owner costs).

My understanding is that the City of Austin is looking to install, at the Federal Government costs, street corner storage batteries in case of a storm grid failure.  Hence microgrids.

My objection is that the current grids are overloaded with renewable source rendering the grid unreliable when loaded (overuse during heat wave) - four (4) issues are obvious:

Storms would not be an issue (i) if the grids were reliable, (ii) we do not have power storage batteries, (iii) if we had batteries the cost will be prohibitive and (iv) space required is not available.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 5, 2019 2:38 pm GMT

"Storms would not be an issue (i) if the grids were reliable, (ii) we do not have power storage batteries, (iii) if we had batteries the cost will be prohibitive and (iv) space required is not available."

Amen.

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