Industry Market Trends

Could Decentralized Microgrids Solve the Extreme Weather Outage Problem?

Nov 12, 2012

Credit: NOAA

Recent extreme weather events have spotlighted the vulnerability of the power grid to climate disruptions. Our centralized electrical system is frustratingly vulnerable to wind, to trucks crashing into utility poles, to squirrels misbehaving in substations -- not to mention the occasional catastrophic hurricane -- making the availability of electricity pretty precarious.

Could a more decentralized system of power generation and distribution prove more resilient? Could a combination of microgrid infrastructure, renewable energy and on-site generation provide more reliable power for businesses? Anecdotal evidence from Hurricane Sandy indicates that the answer is yes.

Storm surge from Hurricane Sandy battered the Battery Tunnel in Downtown Manhattan. Credit: Patrick McFall, CC BY-SA 2.0

It is not hard to visualize decentralized power generation. Many businesses and institutions already have their own cogeneration systems and backup generators, usually powered by diesel fuel. For many, solar, wind, geothermal, biomass and other renewable sources are increasingly being employed to provide some percentage of total power needs.

The Galvin Electricity Initiative describes microgrids as "modern, small-scale versions of the centralized electricity system" that "generate, distribute and regulate the flow of electricity...but do so locally." A large and resilient network of autonomous microgrids could be used to provide the control systems for renewable sources and make it easy to go into "island mode," uncoupling from the grid, should power outages occur.

Peter Asmus, an energy expert who researches energy topics for Pike Research, tells me in an email response that microgrids can provide greater resilience for electric power during and after extreme weather events. "In theory, microgrids would never lose power (if they work properly)," he writes.

Writing on the Pike Research blog, Asmus notes that Hurricane Sandy "underscores a compelling reality: Today's power grid is wholly inadequate for today's hyper-digitalized economy." He adds, "Incorporating distributed resources within an islanding microgrid can provide emergency energy services even as the larger grid awaits repairs and restoration." Without microgrid technology in place, on-site energy sources become "stranded assets, going offline as the larger network of nuclear, coal and natural gas plants also shuts down in the midst of a storm."

Hurricane Sandy: Microgrids Ride Out the Storm

Reports are already testifying that microgrids helped keep the lights on during and after Sandy.

Writing in Forbes, William Pentland says Co-op City, a large housing development in the Bronx, N.Y., was able to disconnect from the main power grid and run on its own 40-MW cogeneration plant during the hurricane. The plant powered the 330-acre community's 14,000 apartments, 35 high-rise buildings, townhouses, garages, three shopping centers and six schools. Herb Freedman, principal of Marion Real Estate Inc., which manages Co-op City, told Pentland, "Hurricane Sandy hit Co-op City about as hard as it hit most anywhere else in New York City, but everybody in Co-op City had power during and after the storm."

The Queens, N.Y., neighborhood of Howard Beach is incapacitated by flooding after Hurricane Sandy. Credit: Pam Andrade, CC BY 2.0

The Daily Princetonian reports that at Princeton University, in Princeton, N.J., power was only out "for a minute or two." After the campus's cogeneration plant successfully took over, the school rode out the storm. Under normal circumstances, the cogeneration plant provides nearly all heating and cooling for the campus and about half of the electricity required.

Dan Pahlan, senior shift operator at the plant, says when the power grid of PSEG, the local utility, went out, "we disconnected from PSEG and we ran the engine" around the clock. Princeton University had to shut off some non-critical buildings during the outage, but the school was operational on its microgrid from Monday, Oct. 29, to its reestablishment with PSEG on Thursday, Nov. 1.

Similarly, a report in the New York Times says that New York University was able to keep power on for most of its campus after the Con Edison grid went down, thanks to the school's gas-fired cogeneration plant. When the grid failed, NYU cut itself off from Con Edison and ran in island mode.

Martin LaMonica at MIT Technology Review writes that the Federal Drug Administration's White Oak research facility in Maryland "has gone onto island mode dozens of times since setting up a microgrid." During the hurricane, "the local grid failed and the campus facility switched entirely over to its on-site natural gas turbines and engines to power all the FDA buildings on the campus for two and a half days."

India's "Microgrid Moment"

This summer's catastrophic blackouts in India have stimulated interest in microgirds in that country. Writing for Firstpost, G. Pramod Kumar says that the states of Maharashtra and West Bengal have operating microgrids. T.P Das, a power consultant based in Chennai, believes decentralized power is a good solution for India. He tells Kumar:

"The concept involves small power plants and small grids catering to the needs of the population of 30-50 km radius. There should be provision for exchange of power with other micro-grids so that they can transfer electricity according to surplus and deficit condition."

Such microgrids could be powered by small stations of 5 to 10 MW using solar, wind or biomass, Das says.

Pike Research's Asmus calls the blackout crisis "India's Microgrid Moment," writing that the outage could "help make India one of the world's top hot spots for remote microgrids." Pointing to mobile communications as a parallel example, Asmus makes a case for the developing world as a prime market for microgrids:

Just as the developing world leapfrogged landlines - the equivalent of today's centralized transmission grid - to move directly to mobile and wireless telecommunications, it may skip to distributed microgrid networks (the analogue of cell phones), rather than building out massive long-distance transmission networks. More importantly, from an environmental point of view, these remote systems will not rely on diesel power generation, the default source of power throughout much of the developing world.