A Crisis is a Terrible Thing to Waste

Beginning on June 29th, a brief but violent storm swept from the Midwest to the Mid-Atlantic, disabling electricity to the masses. The storm toppled trees and branches into power lines and knocked out transmission towers and electrical substations, leaving more than 3.8 million people without power, some for more than a week.

The recent heat wave compounded the issue. The sweltering 100+ F temperatures made the loss of electricity almost unbearable. Pepco, the utility serving Maryland and the District of Columbia, alone spent an estimated 300,000 man-hours to restore power to all of its customers.

But if indications from climate models are correct, increasingly extreme weather events may become the new normal, forcing us to reevaluate the ability of the electric grid to keep the lights on and the ice cream frozen.

Hot Temps and Wild Storms: Recipe for Outages

Heat waves and storms have always existed, and to date, the grid has survived more or less intact. Moreover, very few scientists would go so far as to say that climate change had caused a specific storm or a specific temperature record.

However, not recognizing that temperatures are increasing is a dangerous proposition. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration recently released its state of the climate report, noting that the 12-month stretch between July of 2011 and June of 2012 was the warmest year in the contiguous United States since recordkeeping began in 1895.

Not surprisingly, since January 1st, wildfires fires have incinerated more than 2.7 million acres across the U.S., threatening lives and property. In RMI’s home state of Colorado, the Waldo Canyon blaze near Colorado Springs destroyed more than 340 homes, and is on record as the most destructive fire in the state’s history.

As temperatures rise, so do the risks of electricity outages. To support the growing demand for cooling requirements, grids will become increasingly congested and prone to failure. Stopgap solutions (building more gas plants to power the increased demand) are possible, but may only worsen the effects of climate change, creating a vicious cycle fueled by our reliance on fossil fuels to power our lives.

To make matters worse, the grid is aging and vulnerable even without natural disasters. Last year, the entire Southwestern United States experienced a 1.6 million-person blackout when a single worker accidentally tripped a transmission line. (Yet the University of California San Diego’s microgrid was able to keep many lights on; watch video to find out how.)

Identifying the Opportunity

It’s time to kill two birds with one stone. The grid needs to be upgraded and powered with cleaner sources of power. Fortunately, we can simultaneously adapt to a more flexible and reliable grid while also reducing electricity’s contribution to climate change. The National Renewable Energy Lab recently concluded that it is entirely possible for renewable technologies to supply more than 80 percent of total U.S. electricity in 2050. NREL is not alone. In Reinventing Fire, RMI outlines how a highly renewable and reliable grid is not only possible, but also cost competitive.

However, to achieve these visions of the future, significant investments in the control and management systems in the distribution grid are needed. Luckily, emerging technologies are opening up a world of possibilities.

For instance, imagine a grid that is threatened by storms. By knowing the exact moment and location that a falling tree takes out a wire, utilities can reduce the duration of or even prevent outages. EPB, the municipal utility established by the City of Chattanooga in Tennessee, successfully weathered its own recent storms with its upgraded smart grid systems. Newly installed feeder switches sensed disruptions in real time, successfully isolated network faults and cut the number of customers affected by storm-related outages in half compared to what would have been the case with previous technology.

On the other side of the country, California utilities are beefing up their own distribution systems. Pacific Gas & Electric, for instance, installed a system of high-speed communications control software, and within a year, this system has already prevented an outage near the town of Rio Vista.

For a specific class of customers, even more can be done. Local investments in energy management and control systems can make dramatic contributions to a resilient grid. Microgrids, such as those at UCSD and at military bases, are already demonstrating the benefits of improved control and management capabilities. A microgrid with onsite generation, storage, and load control can manage local resources to meet essential needs during an outage, even in the event of a wider grid blackout. In grid emergencies, some microgrid control systems can relieve grid stress by reducing electricity demand, by exporting power to the grid, or by islanding itself temporarily until conditions stabilize.

Making Smart Choices Now for the Future

Innovative opportunities exist for the electric grid, and a growing number of people are realizing that delays in grid investments could prove to be penny wise and pound-foolish. The actions of utilities and regulators, however, will determine how smooth the transition is to a more resilient and renewable system. Utilities will need to aggressively continue piloting intelligent technologies, perhaps adapting their business models enabled by the new communications. Regulators, while holding utilities accountable for grid expenditures, must also support the much needed investments and innovation for future generations.

And as for the average citizen, the choice is simple. You can do nothing: you can continue paying the electric bill, occasionally pausing to grumble about electricity cost or reliability. Or, you can learn more about the electricity system (like Newt Gingrich), and request (perhaps even demand) grid upgrades that will protect against storms and enable a greater use of renewables.

RMI is working to reinvent the electric system, recently launching the Electricity Innovation Lab, a collaborative engagement to address the technical, institutional, and regulatory challenges of achieving an electricity system that is more clean, secure, and reliable for all. We heartily welcome your input.

Whatever you decide, remember that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

How has this year’s weather affected you and what can you do about it?