In the wake of several highly destructive hurricanes ravaging Caribbean islands and states such as Texas and Florida, many energy industry professionals are reevaluating the way they handle their infrastructure. For years, the industry has handled issues such as natural disasters by trying to reinforce utility poles and power facilities, but even these defenses built up over time have proven ineffective when it comes to weathering a major disaster.
Additionally, regardless of how robust infrastructure gets, vulnerabilities to cyber attacks have become a very real problem in recent years. Even if these attacks are relatively infrequent, a minor breach can have major consequences given the interconnectivity of the grid system.
In short, many have begun to realize that the concept of a grid is fundamentally flawed, and are starting to seek other ways of handling the infrastructure problem. These sentiments have been around for some time, but the damage wreaked by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria have thrown into sharp relief the need for more compartmentalized grid systems.
Enter the microgrid. It’s a concept that has been around for awhile; I’ve even written about it being executed in certain African countries. However, there’s certainly a need for it in the US. The idea of a microgrid is fairly straightforward, consisting of smaller electricity networks that draw power from sources, both those located in the general area as well as directly on the property in question.
The main advantage of these microgrids is their ability to continue to provide power in the event of large-scale disruption of the main grid. New York City is one of the many locations looking to improve grid resiliency in this way, planning on spending millions to better partition their systems.
Jared Smith, microgrid expert, has spoken on the appeal of this new system.
“Microgrids are a link between the monopoly model of conventional utilities and a more interactive, consumer driven platform,” he said.
Indeed, microgrids give consumers more power (so to speak) over their energy offerings. While microgrids can be used in conjunction with a traditional power grid, it empowers consumers to not only invest in a more robust energy system, but one that makes use of renewable energy. Locally sourced wind and solar power are both staples of microgrids, meaning that adoption could benefit the environment in addition to being a practical defense against outages. Plus, features such as on-site solar panels minimizes the risk of disruption by eliminating much of the delivery infrastructure that could be damaged during a disaster.
These grids, as new infrastructure, present an opportunity to integrate with more advanced monitoring software to gain critical information about power use and identify the cause of outages. The challenge going forward will be for any system associated with a grid to learn when to isolate itself in the event of a cyberattack to prevent the compromise of multiple grids.
It may be too late to prevent the loss of power to places such as Puerto Rico, where it is estimated that it will take six months to bring the island back online. However, by investing in microgrids and renewables, we can help cushion the impact and prepare for the future on an ever-changing planet.
If you would like to contribute to relief efforts in Puerto Rico, I recommend visiting the following websites for more information on how you can help: