Even in the Off Season, Utilities Must Prepare the Smart Grid with Storage for Natural Disasters

Although the U.S. made it through a quiet 2014 Atlantic hurricane season this year, it doesn’t mean we’re out of the waters. Natural disasters are an ongoing threat to our infrastructure, and utilities need to be conscious of the present state and future of our power grid. Fortunately, in recent years many utilities across the country have recognized the importance of being prepared for major storms, and have been actively researching and implementing solutions to prepare for the next big one.

Out of all the solutions that are currently being explored, it is important to ask which factors deserve the most attention and resources. Based on my experience, I believe that the top three most critical developments are smart meters, solar power generation systems and storage batteries. If a utility is not leveraging solutions in these areas, its system will be outdated within a year. So, what are some ways that the nation’s top utilities and companies are advancing their grids?

Smart Meters 

There is more to a smart meter than its ability to automatically turn up or down your heat, which is what the average American understands they are able to do. In fact, one utility, Florida Power & Light (FPL) has spent more than twenty years working on a distribution system that extends from the smart meter to a performance and diagnostic center. (It is worth noting that since Florida has more thunderstorms and lighting strikes than any other state in the U.S. – causing many outages, it’s not surprising that a utility from this state is leading the charge on the smart grid.) FPL’s system collects and leverages detailed information on previous outages – from momentary disruptions to trees falling on power lines – to understand and anticipate what is wrong in a current situation, and to respond automatically to imminent or current outages. 

These meters do more than just pinpoint electric power issues. They work well with water too. In fact, Navigant Research predicts that 153 million advanced and smart water meters will be installed worldwide by 2022. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) is contributing to this growth by spearheading a $50M project to install 177,000 new meters that automatically transmit hourly data back to the utility. It is similar to the FPL example, but as it applies to water.

Utility companies, in observing the devastating impact of storms like Superstorm Sandy, are now realizing how smart meters can be used for more than just day-to-day energy usage, but also for protecting against natural disasters. For example, let’s say every building and home in every state that was affected by Sandy was equipped with a smart meter. Instead of taking weeks to manually search for outages in the electric or water lines (which is costly and can present a significant safety hazard), a smart meter could pinpoint the location of the fault so the utility could fix it quickly. 

Solar Power Generation

Today, we are seeing solar panels on everything from suburban homes to city skyscrapers. As President Obama reported in January 2014, every four minutes a new solar panel is being installed. Solar-equipped homes are becoming increasingly common, especially in areas where the local utility is offering incentives for installation. Consumers Energy in Michigan is one example. Michigan’s regulatory actions and financial incentives support this — specifically a 30 percent federal tax credit for any size project. These photovoltaic (PV) systems collect energy from the sun and because they are connected directly to the grid, they can power consumers’ everyday energy usage. The concept of consumers being able to power their own energy use — as long as it’s tied back to the grid — is a compelling one.

However, given that we’re still in the early stages of mainstream usage, U.S. utilities are also looking to other countries — primarily Germany — for guidance. Germany is a good case study due to its successes as well as its oversights. Although there have been many positive developments since it started, German utilities vastly underestimated the popularity of rooftop solar when the initiative was new, so they didn’t prepare for the expensive upgrades the grid needed to support it. For example, the electricity produced must be converted from DC (direct current) to 120/240 volt AC (alternating current) for consumers to use in the home.

Storage batteries, which aren’t currently used by most consumers because they are still very expensive, can help power solar-energy systems. This technology is guaranteed to take off in the very near future, and will be a critical component to a more stable power grid. 

Storage Batteries

In a typical scenario, a solar generation system would be automatically shut down when a utility loses power. But that same system could remain operational for days or weeks at a time with an effective storage battery. In fact, earlier this year Navigant Research released a market analysis and forecast on how batteries could have a significant impact on our grid.

There are several factors to consider when it comes to evaluating the effectiveness of storage batteries. First, how safe is it? Keep in mind that a small 9 volt battery in a junk drawer next to some steel wool can burn down your house. Energy storage batteries have far greater capacity and can pose greater risks. For example, lithium-based batteries — which are being heavily explored as an option for energy solutions — can lead to gas leaks and ultimately fire if subjected to a host of thermal (it gets too cold), or electric (external or internal short circuits) abuse conditions. Second, how quickly can it recharge and how long can it keep that charge? What if you live in an area like London, notorious for its overcast days? Would the battery be able to keep the solar generation system going until the sun shows itself again? An equally plausible scenario is the longer stretches of dark within a day that is indicative of the winter months. Third, how efficient is it? Is it using more energy to store than it is to keep your solar-powered system running? At Toshiba, we believe these are the critical questions that should be asked when developing storage battery solutions.

Preparing for the Future

The bottom line is that we can’t control natural disasters. Most of us will likely experience another hurricane similar to Sandy in the U.S. However, the technology and solutions available to us today allow us to prevent the same level of destruction. The next year will be a critical one for utilities and technology providers alike, and I am eager to see which advancements drive the industry forward.

Lead image: Transmission lines via Shutterstock

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