Chris King| Feb 01, 2013
Why power grid resilience has people talking
Resilience: it's a hot topic on the exhibit floor and in the hallways at this week's Distributech conference in San Diego.
Resilience means the ability of the power grid to withstand natural disasters and other attacks (think computer hacking or terrorism), as well as faster restoration after outages. Resilience also means withstanding disturbances and fluctuations on the grid caused by solar power, wind turbines, and even electric vehicle chargers. These things vary according to the vagaries of weather and whims of electricity consumers -- in strong contrast to centrally controlled and operated power stations and transmission grids.
How can the smart grid help? Here are some options:
- Microgrids are "islands" that can be isolated from the rest of the power system. A microgrid may comprise a university campus, or a military base, or even a city's critical downtown area. During a power disturbance, microgrids can disconnect from the main grid and rely upon on-site distributed generation sources, energy storage (such as batteries, or thermal storage in the form of ice or hot water), or other locally controlled technologies. The smart grid makes microgrids possible by providing the software to manage the microgrid, the communications to receive data from meters and other sensors, the communications to send control signals to automated switches and other grid devices, and the sensors and switches themselves.
- Virtual power plants. Software allows utilities to bring together distributed power resources (such as renewable generation or storage) and "dispatch" them to meet power needs. With the proper control, these resources begin to function rather like a traditional power plant; utilities can turn them on or off or change their operating level using software and remote control via wireless communication networks.
- Demand response. Smart meters allow customers to help solve power grid problems by shifting usage in response to time-of-use or real-time prices enabled by the meters. This can be especially valuable for integrating renewables onto the grid, since they can be intermittent and sometimes unpredictable. For instance, an unexpectedly high contribution from solar power can cause voltage problems on a grid. In response, utilities can provide price incentives to store energy, with smart meters recording what was consumed and when. Or when wind resources are unexpectedly low (which normally would mean the utility would have to purchase power from the pricey spot market to meet demand), the utility can send a price signal to customers to encourage them to shift loads to off-peak hours.
The smart grid and smart meters also help speed post-outage restoration. Following Hurricane Sandy, Pepco (a U.S. Mid-Atlantic utility) reported faster response resulting from outage alerts sent automatically by smart meters. Pepco also was able to verify power restoration using remote communications -- saving valuable crew time and effort.
Think of how crucial electricity is to most people's daily life -- everything from charging your cell phone to downloading email on your laptop while working at home. A more resilient grid is an insurance policy to protect us.
And it's worth a lot. According to the Electric Power Research Institute, power outages cost us $80 billion per year in lost productivity and other costs -- not to mention personal inconvenience and disruption.
Even if this estimate is high, buying a more resilient power grid through investments in the smart grid is likely to pay for itself many times over.
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