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The case for a distributed, smarter, cleaner power grid post Hurricane Sandy

Monday night as I was camped out in front of my Twitter feed — safe and dry in San Francisco — friends and family in New York started tweeting about power failures all over lower Manhattan. Their cell phones, running on batteries and tapping into their carrier’s high speed wireless networks — many that are backed up with diesel generators — were still up, even as the power grid went down across many parts of the East Coast.

As of Tuesday morning, around 7.5 million customers were without power across 15 states and Washington D.C. according to CNN. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Tuesday morning that he expects power to be out for the next two or three days in New York, “or maybe even longer than that,” and he also said that getting the power grid back up and running (along with getting the transit system online) will be the city’s “biggest challenges.” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo publicly told New York utility ConEd that its initial estimates of restoring power within two weeks were “unacceptable.”

The stark contrasts between the resiliency of our data communication networks and our power grid in these situations is unnerving. The power grid is highly vulnerable — it’s still largely a centralized system, with little energy storage capacity at the edges of the network, and it still lacks a lot of the intelligence that Internet architecture has that can deliver self-healing and re-route around damaged systems. And that’s a problem.

Electrical explosion

To witness just how vulnerable the power grid can be, watch this YouTube video:

CNN reports that the video is of a tranformer that blew in lower Manhattan Monday night. As Nicholas Abi-Samra, chair of the IEEE Power & Energy Society’s San Diego chapter, explained in an interview with IEEE about how utilities were preparing for Hurricane Sandy, there’s no way to completely protect the grid against extreme flooding, winds, rains, downed trees and flying debris. In particular, when a substation filled with transformers (like the one that blew last night in New York) is damaged, it can take months to fully repair it.

It’s the intelligence of a utility’s grid that matters in the wake of a disaster like Hurricane Sandy — how quickly can they identify outages and how quickly can they repair them? For many utilities in the U.S., the process of identifying who has lost power and where is only partly automated. Until very recently, the standard way of finding grid outages was by getting a phone call from the customer saying their power was out.

Some utilities are starting to employ smart grid technologies that can help more quickly automate the process of healing the grid. For example, SmartGridNews points out that Chattanooga, Tennessee-based utility EPB has started installing a self-healing grid that can cut the length of power outages by 40 percent. Long Island Power Authority was also in the process of installing a new outage detection computer system, but given it won’t be working until next year; little good it did them through Hurricane Sandy.

The underlying architecture

But beyond adding computing capacity and smart software to the power grid to make it smarter, the internet is more resilient than the power grid by its very nature.

The power grid has traditionally been built so that utilities have to balance demand for energy (buildings and industry consuming energy) and the supply (centralized power plants burning mostly fossil fuels to produce electricity) at all times. When there are large fluctuations in demand or supply, created by things like a power plant shutting down or a transformer blowing, the cascading effect can bring down whole chunks of the network.

The internet doesn’t work that way. When data centers, servers and network devices fail, oftentimes web sites and service providers can shift traffic to other data centers and servers or route traffic to network gear that isn’t suffering from problems. If there’s heavy traffic, service providers can rapidly ramp up and down capacity through services like Akamai’s CDN. Data network outages can also usually be discovered immediately and most often times resolved shortly — hours in the most extreme cases (some of the outages at Amazon’s Web Services have been the exception).

The internet is a distributed system. It was designed that way (by DARPA) at its core to be resilient to attack. The power grid is not (yet) distributed. When the power grid has a massive spike in energy consumption (like during a hot summer afternoon), the network can potentially go down if it’s not quickly matched by expensive (and dirty) backup power generation from peaker power plants.

Energy storage

It should be noted that it’s easier and cheaper to move bits than electrons — it’s more an analogy for how a network should be designed. To make the power grid more resilient, smarter and more distributed, it will require a massive investment in power generation, transmission, distribution, smart grid software and energy storage.

A truly de-centralized power grid would require local power generation through solar panels or other means like fuel cells, microgrids that can isolate a neighborhood in the event of disasters, and energy storage systems (like batteries) that can bank power for buildings. Critical systems and buildings like data centers and hospitals have emergency backup power (when it works), mostly from diesel-power generators, but these are inefficient, dirty, costly and not widely used (or needed) by much of the population with reliable grid power.

It’s not as weird as it sounds to move to a more distributed power grid. Large companies in India are so used to rolling blackouts there that many of the largest have their own storage and backup systems and the biggest weren’t effected by the massive blackouts in India earlier this year. Solar panels are also cheaper than they have ever been, and are being installed on the roofs of U.S. homes and businesses at a rapid rate. Of course, solar panels won’t help in a nighttime storm, but if they’re matched with energy storage, they can bank daytime power for the nighttime critical use.

STILL, distributed power systems and energy storage units need to be far cheaper for this decentralized power grid to actually be viable. When fuel cell maker Bloom Energy launched years ago it painted the picture of a Bloom box in every home providing a mini power plant to all homes and businesses — but that’s a distant dream until the price of its fuel cells drops dramatically.

Clean power

There’s also another part of the story of the power grid and Hurricane Sandy. And that’s the need for a transformation of the grid to next-generation

Aerial view of Apple’s solar farm

energy technologies, like adding in more carbon emissions-free power generation and energy efficiency technologies. Leaders like Governor Cuomo are already describing Hurricane Sandy as an example of a new era of extreme weather, without even mentioning the politicized word climate change.

Cuomo said:

“There has been a series of extreme weather incidents. That is not a political statement. That is a factual statement. Anyone who says there’s not a dramatic change in weather patterns, I think is denying reality.”

Whatever combination is leading to more extreme weather (Mother Jones has a good take on the Sandy climate change argument), reducing the world’s carbon emissions is widely believed by scientists as something that can help address the problems of climate change. That means developing and deploying next-generation energy technologies that reduce energy consumption overall, and deliver low cost and viable clean power.

Even if you’re still not convinced about climate change, it’s actually an argument about infrastructure. The power grid needs a massive investment — at even a greater degree to the investment that’s been made in Internet infrastructure — to make it a more modern, digital, and resilient network. And hopefully, a cleaner network, too.

Image courtesy of NCDOTcommunications, and NASA.

18 Responses to “The case for a distributed, smarter, cleaner power grid post Hurricane Sandy”

  1. Tom Preiss

    This is wy Chinas partner with
    Wsttinghouse to billed 40 modern nuclerreactore puats them sofare ahead off us energy wise and environmental. It also give them the ability to generate clean hydrogen full for substations and peak electrical us. Also breeder reactors don’t produce nuclear wast.

  2. Affirmative Action Energy

    We can dismiss the millions who no longer can afford higher costs for energy as a result of the 100’s upon 100’s of billions required to implement a smart grid, by simply celebrating diversity and inclusion because those negatively effected are widely dispersed and therefore invisible.

  3. Great converse but the biggest problem is much less “exotic” than what peep here think is important: TREES. TREES and POWER LINES DON’t MIX. What the “solution” is I dunno, but it ain’t cutting all of them down…

  4. Adelaide aware

    Off grid systems and decentralization is the way to go. It can all be done cost effectively today with normal residential houses. All it takes is a little thought.

    Our civilization is built around these centralized power systems. One bomb or one catastrophe can instantly send us back to the stone-age. As evident today

    Smart grid??? Beware! Large power companies are pushing this agenda as it makes their systems operate more cost effectively. This is only an extension of centralized system. This article has political motivations. The electricity companies globally are trying to make power distribution cheaper on a mass scale. One big issue is, peak power requires massive infrastructure. Ie bigger generators heavier power lines etc. By using smart grid technology they don’t have to increase infra structure.

    During peak load events they will just switch off non critical power. IE dish washer, laundry, TV etc. (peak events are during heat waves)

    Smart grid basically undercuts profits made by solar installations and battery storage systems. Sure smart grid takes away the peaks, but it also makes sure big power protects its profits.

    Smart grids are good but just be aware of the political motivations!!!

    • There are plants located in new york, plants located in other states. Over 300 of them located through out the entire USA. How the hell will one “bomb” cut off the entire grid? It wont!. Also it is not cost effective at all to go off grid, solar is also insufficient to supply power to even a quater of those on the east coast as it doesnt get enough sun. The only reliable decentralised generation is gas fired cogen, but think about it, that would be relying on the gas grid which is even more vulnerable than the electricity grid as entire states may run from just one plant. Do your research before typing up a load of bullshit!

    • the fark you on about? i dont want no solar panels on my roof, nor do i want a gas generator polluting in my neighbourhood. are you retarded? they build these toxic power stations far away for that reason, who would want pollution in the heart of their city. YUCK

  5. Let’s be clear – first, Thanks to Katie for introducing this important topic – we are utterly reliant on electricity and the grid as it is currently designed is incredibly vulnerable. That is to say, it has multiple “single points of failure.” It resembles a tree, with a trunk, then limbs, then branches, then twigs, then leaves, delivering a one-way stream of power but a disruption (fault) somewhere along a line can cause those downstream to lose power (outage) until the fault is addressed by a line crew. In contrast, the internet (on the large scale) more closely resembles a spider web or a fishing net, where information packets leave a server, proceed down multiple paths, finding the most efficient collection of paths to get the information transmission to its destination at another server. If a point fails, the info packet can reroute (go around) the failure and still make it to its destination. (If the your communication network is down because of electricity, that doesn’t impact the information – its waiting on the server to download when you get power back). The grid is not designed like the internet, at least not yet. Katie’s argument is quite sound – we need to do both things: first, optimize the grid by adding sensors and automating processes with digital devices, but also second, we need to add distributed energy devices that can provide a Plan B when the grid fails – no more Single Points of Failure, no more Outages, just switch over to your onsite power supply. Continuity of electricity has become too important to put all our energy eggs in the grid basket – Think Outside the Grid, folks!

    John Cooper, Partner, NextWatt Solutions

  6. rickyj001

    I agree. We need to begin the long arduous task of rebuilding the entire system from the ground up. Start with burying all transmission lines that are now affected by trees falling over in high winds and snow loads. Let’s face it…the telephone pole has been around since the mid-nineteenth century. It’s time to retire them all.
    Next, we need to cover every roof that has a clear view of the Southern sky with photovoltaic panels and tie them to the grid. They can be generating power all day while we work, and eliminate the need for peak generation plants (peakers).
    Finally, put some thought into growth. Not for the next quarter or the next twelve months, but for the next century. Plan ahead for maintenance, management and change and you will have a system that can be kept not only operational, but optimized for the foreseeable future.
    I know this is expensive. I know this will take a long time. But the opportunity to create a new system that will last for the next one hundred years is too necessary and too important to pass up.

  7. Justin Webb

    appreciate the author trying to make a point, but anyone who reads this will notice that she does not actually do that. It’s a lot of words with no real analysis. Case in point. I quote from above “…But beyond adding computing capacity and smart software to the power grid to make it smarter, the internet is more resilient than the power grid by its very nature.”

    Well, when the power went off in NJ last night, so did my fixed and wireless network connections. Meaning that as far as I was concerned, the internet was gone. You’ll argue that it wasn’t, I just could not access it, but that’s exactly the same as the power grid, people had power elsewhere, I just was not one of them. There were local failures that thankfully, have been fixed just over 24 hours later, just like what happens when undersea fiber connections get damaged knocking out the net for millions (it does happen) . The internet has the same weaknesses as the power grid. In fact, what you are arguing is that the power grid should AVOID being designed like the internet, and have power generators and consumers as located as geographically close together as possible.

  8. Sammy your quite right there, actually the only parts of manhattan that remained with power are the parts relying on centralised generation. This article needs better research im sorry to say. It’s biased.

  9. Sammy Corstrato

    The explosion in the video is of a decentralised power plant within New York City it’s self. All energy infrastructure is vulnerable, where it be centralised or decentralised. How will the microgrids effectively function without burying power lines? Exactly they won’t. Power lines would have to be put underground, which may be the only solution it’s self needed to greatly increase reliability. A very high majority of the outages in New York, New Jersey are localised eg Manhattan was blacked out because it was flooded. Centralised generation really hasn’t got much to do with these outages, rather it being the distribution networks problem. (Distributed generation will utilise the distribution network regardless so what’s the point?)

  10. Decentralized power generation and the requisite changes in the grid to accommodate new sources addresses a critical improvement in present arrangement. Power generation and design of transmission network is one of most glaring, in our face inefficiency that is being ignored. Being ignored because smart people are wasting their time in creating stupid photo-sharing websites; a task best left for high school students.
    Great job Katie on posting great items on power related topics.

  11. Bernt Bremdal

    Having observed the current events in New York from a distance my students and I have been discussing exactly the need for a more robust grid. Local micro production and storage, smart load balancing and a bottom-up cellular approach based on micro grids would create more robustness, a capacity for self healing and emergency power. A ramp up of the grid is likely to go quicker using this approach and engaging the users in a positive way. The capital investment calculations also look favorably. Sandy is a mega distaster, but even the smaller ones, the ones that come more often create so much damage and suffering that nearly any way you calculate it makes very much sense.

    • Svein Inge KÃ¥revik

      Only one challenge with the ramp up of the grid is that the model needs to be changed from uni-directional transmission out to the end users, to a model which allows bi-directional supply and demand. I am not quite sure if the current grid allows for that model currently. Otherwise I am all in favor of this approach. I also believe a more decentralized model with Energy Production closer to the actual source (i.e. natural gas field) may offset some of the costly pipe line and transport infrastructure needed. A large fuel cell power plant close to a gas field could conceivably deliver enough power for a region.

    • The capital cost for storage might be reduce by a distributed system that 1) would be backup in case of need i.e. would disconnect from the grid until service was restored, but not from all the load, 2) was bought by the person getting the backup, and 3) included a payback from frequency regulation, arbitrage, etc to provide a return from the investment in it.

      Living in North Dakota, we make sure we have some heat sources for our house that don’t need electricity. But it would be more comfortable to have the control systems of the primary furnace able to continue running when (not if) an ice storm takes down the local lines. Doesn’t happen too often, but some years back our electricity was off for several days.