How to Keep the Lights On After a Hurricane


More than a month after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, nearly 80 percent of the island remains without power, and food and water can be tough to find. As we rally to help the survivors and look to rebuild, we owe it to the victims there and in hurricane-ravaged Texas, Florida and elsewhere in the Caribbean to build more resilient infrastructure and prevent and reduce such destruction.

Rebuilding the electric grid in Puerto Rico will take months. But blackouts requiring weeks or months to fix are not caused by hurricanes alone. Many of the affected areas are powered by obsolete grids using fossil fuels. These fragile systems are easily knocked out by storms. We can’t eliminate hurricanes. But if we modernize the electric grid, we can stop blackouts caused by monster storms while also saving fossil fuel and reducing emissions of the greenhouse gases that warm the planet and make these storms more likely and destructive.

When one of us (Richard Branson) emerged from his cellar after riding out Hurricane Irma’s assault on Necker Island, the house and everything surrounding it was destroyed — except for the solar power array, which laid flat on ground and remained materially intact. Solar power systems survived Irma and kept working in Florida and Haiti. While Hurricane Harvey cut some Texas power lines, no wind farms were destroyed.

But that does not mean people with their own solar panels or other renewable energy systems managed to keep on their electricity. Though most of those systems were operable immediately after and often even during the storm, they couldn’t produce a watt of power. Outdated utility rules disabled them, not high winds.

After Superstorm Sandy hit New Jersey in 2012, more than 90 percent of the solar panels survived, but utility rules required that solar systems tied to the grid be shut down to guard against voltage surges that could endanger repairmen fixing the power lines. Homes that should never have lost power, or should have recovered it immediately, waited weeks for grid repairs they didn’t need. But modern power electronics have resolved the utilities’ legitimate safety concerns.

Inverters can be installed that can separate solar systems from the main grid, automatically or manually, and allow the solar systems to continue operating even though the grid is down. Unfortunately, nearly all utilities forbid this. In fact, Florida Power and Light lobbied the Legislature hard this year to restrict their customers from access to home-based solar systems when the grid goes down.

We should use this opportunity in Puerto Rico and other places hit hard by recent storms to do two things: Rebuild damaged or destroyed homes and businesses to be as energy efficient as possible, and rebuild the grid so that alternative energy systems like solar and wind, whether on a home or in a microgrid, can operate independently when the larger grid is damaged or shut down. (Microgrids are small networks of electricity users who rely on a local generating source like solar that is usually attached to the larger grid but can operate independently.)

The need for affordable, clean, reliable, resilient power is most acute for the majority of people of Caribbean island nations who pay high prices for electricity generated by burning imported oil and often paid for by imported capital. A nation like the Bahamas can spend a substantial part of its tourist industry’s earnings just to run its electricity system, and other islands are even worse off.

Our organization, the Rocky Mountain Institute, works with the Clinton Foundation, international and regional partners, governments and utilities to help Caribbean island nations switch to modern and regionally abundant solar and wind power. Those efforts were going well before the latest hurricanes. Solar arrays in the Turks and Caicos Islands and on Cooper Island in the British Virgin Islands, among others, survived the hurricanes without damage and were able to provide electricity to nearby communities.

With those storms behind us, we must work to rebuild stronger, fuel-free, stormproof power systems based on decentralized and resilient renewables like solar. We need to use 21st century innovation, not 20th century technology. Importing fossil fuels costs these island nations enormous sums. Yet the sun shines and the wind blows on these islands for free. We’re optimistic we can do this. But we’ll have to resist our own impulses to carry on with business as usual.

We can learn from the experience of another Caribbean nation — Cuba. Most electricity in the country was restored within a week after Irma struck in early September; in Havana, took just three days. More than a decade ago, Cubamodernized its Soviet-era power plants and centralized grid. In 2005 serious blackouts occurred on 224 days. In 2007 the island’s move to decentralized energy cut that to zero. Now, when hurricanes like Irma hit, many parts of Cuba can sustain vital services.

What was Cuba’s resilient formula? First, the efficient use of power, which helped renewables do more at lower cost. Millions of efficient light bulbs, fans, rice cookers, pressure cookers, refrigerators, air-conditioners and pumps were sold nationwide, reducing power usage.

Most important, Cuba added over 1,800 decentralized diesel and fuel-oil-fired electrical plants across the island and upgraded the infrastructure of the grid itself. Cuba lets these local plants or microgrids disconnect from the island’s grid during storms or blackouts and generate their own electricity for local needs. This allows these microgrids to serve their own customers, then reconnect to the larger grid later.

Microgrids are becoming proven and popular around the world from India (where record floods couldn’t stop solar power) to the University of California at San Diego, whose microgrid (powering 92 percent of the campus and saving $8 million a year) reversed flow and sent power back to the utility in less than a half-hour (until wildfires ate a power line).

Some traditional utilities oppose microgrids as a threat to their beleaguered monopoly. But giant electrical equipment firms like Siemens, Schneider and General Electric now offer microgrids, and nearly 2,000 projects were underway worldwide at the end of 2016.

Simple, sensible improvements like these can make our families, communities and nations more secure and durable; save money and create important new value in the electricity, fuel and real-estate industries.

When storms, earthquakes, wildfires or cyberattacks take down our brittle power grid, we should all be able to start rebuilding our homes and lives immediately, with our smartphones and water pumps, filling stations and traffic lights, computers and refrigerators, continuously powered by the world’s greatest uninterruptible power supply — the sun.

Originally published in the New York Times

Recent Superstorms Spotlight the Need to Address Aging Electrical Infrastructure

Mark Feasel, VP of Schneider Electric’s Electric Utility segment and Smart Grid business for Schneider Electric in the U.S.

This year’s hurricane season has been unprecedented. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria have had a major impact on human lives—families and communities are suffering greatly from the consequences of displacement and damages stemming from natural disasters.

When these situations occur, electricity availability is a critical step in restoring a sense of normalcy to the affected people and communities.

However, disaster recovery efforts become strained when operating within the framework of an aging electrical system. The American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) 2017 Report Card for America’s Infrastructuregrades our country’s energy delivery system a “D+”.

Our power system is further strained by the demands of a new energy landscape, with the forces of digitization, decentralization and decarbonization creating a new reality of power generation and distribution, one for which our current system is not optimized.

While an overnight overhaul of America’s aging electrical infrastructure is neither practical nor realistic, we do have an opportunity to re-build smarter when major chunks of the grid fail, and microgrids have an outsized role to play. Historically, resiliency has been achieved through redundancy, diversity, and efficiency. Microgrids refine and enhance that approach through modularity and digitized solutions.  Microgrid technology supports a next-generation grid that can still incorporate the positive aspects of our existing electrical infrastructure while increasing the grid’s efficiency, resiliency, safety, security and sustainability.

When large-scale outages occur, microgrids can minimize the impact on consumers by serving critical load with local generation, and allowing energy providers to anticipate outages through advanced analytics and configure the system for a minimized impact and quicker recovery.

When large-scale outages occur, microgrids can minimize the impact on consumers by serving critical load with local generation, and allowing energy providers to anticipate outages through advanced analytics and configure the system for a minimized impact and quicker recovery. For example, they offer operators the autonomy to island the grid, shed non-critical load, and prepare generation sources for dispatch ensuring that their facility or consumers do not experience an outage or poor power quality conditions. At the same time, in our new reality of power generation and distribution, grid management software enables the integration of renewable energy, harmonizes distributed zones of control to further protect against outages, and extends the life of existing electrical assets. Following a superstorm, microgrids can also initiate a smart rebuilding process that speeds the grid’s recovery time and restores power with as minimal downtime as possible.

Times of catastrophe highlight the importance of efficiency and resiliency within our electrical infrastructure, but it should always be a priority. Increased stress on the electrical grid due to extreme weather and urbanization will continue to take place, so with that in mind, there must be collaboration from technology providers, utilities and regulators, as well as businesses and communities, to create meaningful change. By adopting microgrids and other electrical infrastructure upgrades, we can leverage technology for system transformation—introducing new levels of resiliency, speeding up recovery time after an outage and even preventing catastrophic failures. This a call to action for our entire community. This new digital world of energy—with more decentralized generation, a two-way flow of decarbonized energy and more digitization for flexible, dynamic energy management—gives us an opportunity to co-create the future of the electric system.

Originally published on Microgrid Knowledge

Solving the Right Problem

Steve Pullins, Vice President, Energy Solutions

This not a short read because real problems are not understood and fixed in an elevator speech or executive summary. So, if you want some reality, please read on. If you’re looking for the elevator speech, no need to read beyond the first two sentences.

Solving the Right Problem

Engineers learn early to first understand what the problem is before setting out to solve it. In the grid industry, the majority of effort spent on reliability is focused on the wrong problem.

A Spring 2016 EnergyBiz article, “Spare Transformers: The Answer to Extreme Weather Risks?,” quoting a 2015 study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Stanford University, said there is a 260% increase in storm outage duration to 370 minutes per customer over the last decade. The report provided several examples of greatly extended outages in distribution, as well as efforts in states for grid modernization. But, the industry is still focused on transmission lines, reserve capacity at the central generation level, and spare power transformers through FERC rules.

Okay – the wrong problem. The transmission and generation (bulk power) system only contributes 10% of the events that lead to customer outages, so massive investment in improving reliability at the bulk power system can only have minimal effect on the reliability felt by customers. It would seem more helpful to attack the 90% problem – distribution system reliability.

There is a difference between how reliability is viewed, and how metrics are structured, at the bulk power system level and the distribution level.

The bulk power system uses grid architecture-based metrics to judge reliability, such as redundancy, reserve margins, N-1 contingencies. However, these architectural metrics do not demonstrate reliable performance, from the customer’s perspective.

At the distribution level, reliability is measured as a performance-based metric. Okay, better. However, the industry uses a reliability metric standard (IEEE 1366) that specifically excludes the largest (and most rapidly growing) cause of customer outages; storms and other Acts of God. Figure 1 suggests the industry pay more attention to the impact of major storms on customers.

For more than 15 years, the industry has said that storms are not the utility’s fault, and that is true. However, the source of the cause of the grid outage is far less important to the customer than the fact that the customer is without power, losing business, damaging product, or failing to deliver important life functions.

The point is, that from the customer perspective, at the time the grid is most needed, in the face of storms, it is not required to operate. This is not reliability, nor is it resilience. The industry metrics do not even measure this most critical element of reliability and resilience.

Storms are nasty. Just ask Mississippi Power about Hurricane Katrina, which damaged all but 3 of their transmission lines and 65% of their distribution infrastructure. All of this damage greatly affected the customers of Mississippi Power, but none of this damage counted as a reliability performance metric.

That same LBNL and Stanford study mentioned above puts the business loss price tag of storm outages in the US at $18B to $33B/year felt by commercial and industrial businesses. Studies at LBNL and EPRI for the last 17 years show the business loss price tag for commercial and industrial businesses for grid reliability (non-storm) at $79B+.

This says that storm-related grid outage impacts on business is significant enough, and growing, to become part of the grid reliability discussion. So, would changing the basis of how reliability is measured help the customer see improved reliability? Yes, but is the cost too great for customers to shoulder the burden?

What Performance We Track Today

The following Figures 2 and 3 from a Heidemarie C. Caswell article in T&D World Magazine, November 2012, show trends in distribution system reliability from the IEEE Distribution Reliability Working Group. The trend in non-storm outage durations is up slightly, and this would suggest that customers are being delivered a reliable grid service at 99.97% uptime.

A 99.97% uptime means grid services available for 99.97% of the hours in a year.) A SAIDI of 170 min/yr/customer is an uptime of 99.97%.

This is an A+ in school. This is fine for most residential applications, but today’s commercial and industrial customers have a growing digital footprint in their processes, point of sales, and overall operations. They require more reliability for business continuity.

However, reviewing where the Quartiles reside in the nation (Figure 3), shows that the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states constitute nearly all of the 4th Quartile performance on reliability, and this does not include storms, which also affect the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states heavily.

As utilities and regulators move to decouple the relationship between how much energy a utility produces and delivers, from the rates and fees it charges to customers, the belief is that utility distribution system investments can be maintained or increased in the face of flat or declining customer energy consumption. On the surface this sounds prudent. But the reality does not seem to bare this out.

It seems that the unintended consequence is (1) deterring innovative solutions, and (2) higher rates for customers, even those who conserve more energy. Left unchecked, the results can be unfathomable. One industrial customer in Connecticut, with flat consumption, saw their energy bill increase over the last 14 years from $450,000/month to $1,100,000/month, but their energy consumption portion of that bill only grew from $300,000/month to $350,000/month over the same 14-year period. The non-consumption portion of their bill grew from $150,000/month to $750,000/month, unchecked. At the same time, this customer saw a decrease in reliability and resilience of their electric service.

The industry needs to change two assumptions; (1) the only solution is more of the same, and (2) the customer will pay for all of it.

To reinforce the point about customer impact from storms, one utility in the Northeast reported to their regulator that their 2012 non-storm SAIDI was typical for the Northeast. They also stated that it represented 26% percent of the total (storm related and non-storm related) outage numbers. This means that 74% of all outages were storm-related outages, three times the non-storm outage numbers. Granted this included Superstorm Sandy; but it makes the point that storm-related outages are important for the industry to incorporate into its thinking and metrics about reliability and resilience. More of the same will not change this. Neither will making the customer pay for it (all).

A Proper Solution Will Take Time

Even if you believe that utilities and regulators are starting to understand the problem and taking actions to address it, which many are; based on historical evidence of significant change in the electric industry, it will take 10 to 15 years to see a broad measurable improvement.

Commercial and industrial customers then must determine if they can wait for this improvement, or seek another course. All too often, one of the options chosen is to move the business to lower energy cost regions or countries.

Is there another way to achieve significantly better reliability performance for the customer?

There is an answer. Not in all cases, but in many communities and campuses (commercial, industrial, university, hospital, etc.) a Microgrid solution can deliver concurrent reliability, resilience, and cost savings (and/or containment) improvements.

There are more options today for the energy service for customers. It would seem prudent that distribution utilities see Microgrids and distributed energy resource (DER) solutions as additional tools in its toolbox to better serve customers.

Microgrid Vision

Steve Pullins, Vice President, Energy Solutions

With the waning performance of the electric grid from a reliability and economics perspective, many consumers have become prosumers, taking more control of their own energy environment. This trend will continue, and possibly accelerate, as the millennials take more and more leadership in companies and agencies in the coming years. As we consider the robust trends in the energy industry, microgrids show promise as an effective tool for consumers and utilities to address many of the reliability, resiliency, environmental, and economic needs on campuses and in communities.

Like many industries, electric and gas industries will become more and more dis-intermediated by distributed solutions and market forces. The shift from landlines to mobile phones, the democratization of travel, and growth of required social options all suggest similar long-term trends will persist in energy. New rules, driven by consumers, are chipping away at the 75-year history of major utility monopolies, and recent efforts in New York, Connecticut, California, Hawaii, and Massachusetts are putting the power of choice in the hands of energy consumers. These drivers are changing the energy market.

The expansive enablement of new technologies are opening doors to these changes in the industry, but it is clear that we have only a glimpse of how technology will enable future changes in the energy industry. Change begets change.

Thus, with waning performance, changes in rules growing out of consumer influence, and new technology enablement, the industry trends are demonstrating a radically different future in energy. The trends suggest that the average distance between generation of electricity and consumption of electricity is moving from tens of miles to tens of feet. The trends are showing the consumers will no longer rely on utilities for reliability and resiliency of service. The trends are showing that younger consumers, as they take on more leadership in society, will drive a much greater emphasis on sustainability and clean energy, even at greater cost. The trends are showing the importance of local energy markets at the city / community level (transactive distribution networks). These trends are suggesting that by 2050 90% of the energy will be produced at the consumer and distribution level and consumed within a mile. The remaining 10% role of the bulk power system will return to its original role (1930’s) of getting geographically constrained renewables to urban / suburban areas.

Microgrids present a new breed of complex solution in this changing space. They offer an optimized portfolio of resources (self-determination) that support cleaner energy supply. They offer a data-rich environment (local big data) where trend and signature analysis are important attributes in driving economics, reliability, and emissions reduction. They offer the flexibility to share energy across neighborhoods (markets) opening the door to shared savings. Microgrids also offer local solutions that “close the loops” on clean water, improved healthcare, retention of local culture, and fostering small businesses in developing nations, who are all challenged by access to affordable, reliable energy.

So, to meet the needs of consumers as the industry progresses to a vastly distributed 2050, much technical, policy, market, and educational change is required to facilitate, even follow, the change driven by new consumer realities. Microgrids are changing the vision of what is possible.

Originally published on LinkedIn

The Curious Thing About a Community Microgrid…

Steve Pullins, Vice President, Energy Solutions

Communities have a lot of stakeholders, but often with common goals. Communities want to be safe, stable, prosperous, and neighborly. In recent years, we have added “sustainable” to those common goals for many communities. Now, that may mean different things to different stakeholders, but generally it means that the community wants to exist 100 years from now with many or all of those same common goals.

If one were to “create” a community with many stakeholders and common goals from scratch, the process would probably be messy. The complexity of gaining consensus on community goals requires diligence and patience.

The same is true for building an energy microgrid for community resilience. Here, I am using resilience as a first cousin to sustainable. Resilience in a community can mean different stakeholder objectives. Some may want life-sustaining services (pharmacy, oxygen, food) to be resilient for vulnerable neighbors in the face of major storms. Some may want critical public safety and health services to be resilient for the entire community in the face of downed power lines and debris-filled streets. Some may want important job-centered businesses to be resilient in the face of emergencies so that income in the community is minimally impacted.

To incorporate a diverse set of important community goals (i.e., “messy”), the microgrid will likely be messy as well. Messy means multiple distributed energy resources vice a single energy resource because a single resource can leave a community vulnerable to loss. Messy means distributing the energy resources across critical facilities because the community needs those services even on loss of the local neighborhood distribution grid. Messy means burying critical sections of the local neighborhood distribution grid because overhead lines are vulnerable to storms. Messy means actively managing all distributed energy resources and load interfaces with real-time controls, load forecasting, and resource dispatch scheduling.

So, for communities with multiple goals around resiliency and sustainability, we probably need to serve them with complex microgrids. Messy.

This is complex, but doable.

Originally published on LinkedIn