As we all know, Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc across the east coast this week, leaving over 7.5 million without power in 15 states. In her blog post, “The case for a distributed, smarter, cleaner power grid post Hurricane Sandy,” posted on GigaOM, Katie Fehrenbacher argues that we need to make changes to the setup of America’s power grids in order to make them less vulnerable during disasters.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg declared on Tuesday that restoring power to the city will be one of the “biggest challenges” in the aftermath of the storm. Fehrenbacher says, “The stark contrasts between the resiliency of our data communication networks and our power grid in these situations is unnerving. The power grid is highly vulnerable — it’s still largely a centralized system, with little energy storage capacity at the edges of the network, and it still lacks a lot of the intelligence that Internet architecture has that can deliver self-healing and re-route around damaged systems. And that’s a problem.”
Just how vulnerable is the power grid? Nicholas Abi-Samra, chair of the IEEE Power & Energy Society’s San Diego chapter, explained that protecting the power grid from extreme flooding, winds, rain, downed trees, and flying debris is nearly impossible. In many areas, even the process of identifying outages is difficult – with only partly automated systems, some utilities companies still need phone calls from customers to identify power outages! For example, the Long Island Power Authority is working on installing a new automatic outage detection computer system, but it will not be up and running until next year…too little, too late in this case.
Fehrenbacher suggests moving toward a more distributed and decentralized power grid in order to improve resiliency. Investments should be made in power generation, transmission, distribution, smart grid software, and energy storage. She says, “It’s not as weird as it sounds to move to a more distributed power grid. Large companies in India are so used to rolling blackouts there that many of the largest have their own storage and backup systems and the biggest weren’t effected by the massive blackouts in India earlier this year.” Yet, this move won’t be possible until distributed power systems and energy storage units become less expensive. In addition, Fehrenbacher warns that Hurricane Sandy is a prime example of unusual and extreme weather patterns emerging as a result of climate change. As such, it is important that we try to reduce carbon emissions by employing next-generation energy technologies that reduce energy consumption and provide clean power.
It will be interesting to follow the challenges and successes of restoring power to millions of people on the east coast in the coming days. Maybe Hurricane Sandy will attract attention to the vulnerability of our current power grids and inspire new investments in improving the technology? What do you think?