Nothing brings us closer to the realization that we are at the mercy of Mother Nature than the after effects of a major storm. Living here in Central New Jersey, I was spared the full impact of her recent fury, but my brother who lives in South Jersey is still dealing with this. For those who have not kept current with the recent set of storms that hit the mid-Atlantic US last weekend, as of this writing (July 3rd) there are about 65,000 customers without electricity in Atlantic City Electric, about 500,000 in Delmarva and over 600,000 in PEPCO’s service territory. The aftermath of this storm has been called “the largest non hurricane-related power outage in Virginia history,” by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.
Many people are vocalizing their frustration at the pace of restoration (there is a pledge by impacted utilities to restore power to 90% of the people by Friday- almost a week after the storms hit); I am confident that every utility worker at the impacted power utilities are working feverishly to bring power back to their customers. My thanks and appreciation goes out to all of those working in both the hot temperatures and hot tempers that go hand in hand with the restoration process.
So with the investment in Smart Grid Technologies such as Distribution Automation and AMI will there be a likely increased consumer pushback in this front?
I hope not. It is my belief that no amount of technology can stop a tree limb from crashing across a feeder, or can stop a lightning strike to a transformer, these are uncontrollable acts of “Force Majeure” (The politically correct way of saying God).
However, as the rush of people head to the big box stores to buy up gasoline-powered generators will soon begin to realize this could be another wake-up call for technology to provide alternative solutions. Independence (remember this is the 4th of July Holiday season) is a strong motivator to investigate, invest and implement micro grids.
But even micro grid technology can have some shortcomings, one of which is cost. However this starts to approach our desire to put more control into the hands of the user. Micro grids can enable islanding and isolation, and independence, shifting our long term expectation and dependence on low cost, predictable, socialized large power production and distribution. The shift from large centralized facilities toward self-sustained islands has its commensurate secondary cost impacts as well. As more and more islands grow, the sunk cost of the central plant must still be recovered, and in some cases, potentially across a smaller base, if they become totally isolated.
So how do we effectively merge these diverse viewpoints, and how do we take the best that both offer?
It is my view that because reliability and safety remains at the of our core needs for electric power, this resource has become almost like one of our inalienable rights. The shift of power from the large to micro may reach a cross over point between cost and dependence. Ask those unfortunate people who remain without power: what price would they pay now to be in the light? I am sure you will get a different answer three weeks from now, when hopefully when everything returns to normal.
With the cost cross over trend lowering, the compromise may soon be practical. And by the way, I wonder what the return policy is for used back-up generators at those big-box stores?
By: Ron Chebra, vice president, Management & Operations Consulting, DNV KEMA Energy & Sustainability