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Year of the Smart Grid

ID 30514659 © Stephan Pietzko | Dreamstime.com

After decades of speculation, I foresee utilities around the country finally moving towards smart grids en masse in 2019. While a litany of reasons justify the switch, the real catalyst is climate change. Numerous power companies have already fallen victim to increasingly volatile weather, their outdated grids simply no match for hurricanes and wildfires. The bombshell 2018 National Climate Assessment predicts everything will get much worse without major reform, warning of serious health consequences and billions of dollars in annual losses. Smart grids are necessary to circumvent the prolonged outages associated with natural disasters, and to accommodate carbon cutting technologies.

The average customer experienced 1.3 interruptions and went without power for a total of four hours in 2016,  according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Although such failures would have had negligible effects only a couple decades ago, in today’s digital economy they spell big losses. The same study estimated that those outages subtracted $41.3 billion from the nation’s GDP. Without change, increasingly pesky weather will drive all of those figures up.

Smart grids won’t end outages, but they can certainly improve utilities’ resilience. When things go bad, advanced grids’ interconnectivity and automated-mechanisms allow them to drastically reduce diagnostic time and even self-heal. Smart junctions and transformers broadcast their statuses, eliminating the need to search for malfunctions. Automated switchgears prevent the spread of outages by quarantining broken-down gear immediately.

The dichotomy between the recent storm recoveries in Houston and Puerto Rico illustrate the importance of smart grids in disaster readiness.

CenterPoint Energy, Houston’s biggest utility, has long been one of the nation’s most advanced power providers and had already invested millions upgrading their grids prior to Harvey. Despite the storm’s record setting rainfall, CenterPoint was able to restore electricity to most of their service area within a few days.

Puerto Rico, on the other hand, was burdened by an antiquated grid when Maria hit in 2017. The resulting calamity has been well documented. All 1.5 million of Puerto Rico Electric Power’s customers were left without power in the immediate aftermath and, shockingly, electricity wasn’t completely restored until nearly one year later. The outages contributed to a death toll that’s been estimated in the thousands by various agencies and research teams.

Beyond dulling the impact of inevitable natural disasters, smart grids will be adopted as part of larger carbon cutting initiatives. With exception of America’s executive branch, almost everyone has accepted the scientific community’s consensus regarding climate change and its man-made drivers. As a result, communities around the country are adopting plans to cut emissions themselves. Take the U.S. Climate Alliance for example, a host of states that have pledged keep their greenhouse gases in line with the Paris Agreement targets.

Cutting carbon emissions entails using a slew of renewable energy sources. Of course, the problem with green power is that it can’t be relied on 24/7–Winds die down and clouds blot out the sun. To avoid downtime, automated systems will have to monitor relevant conditions and juggle the various energy sources, providing a perfectly balanced combination.

As many well intentioned actors have recently discovered, investing in clean energy without the proper grid to support it can be awfully wasteful. A few years ago, Germany’s government was forced to compensate various wind farms with $94 million after making them cut 1.2 percent of their production. China too has struggled to make use of all its wind energy capacity, losing an estimated 15 percent of its wind energy in 2015 according to state statistics.

The inevitability of smart grids is really beyond question at this point. Whether 2019 proves to be a watershed year, however, remains to be seen.  



 


 

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