By Jonathon Monken, senior director – System Restoration and Strategic Coordination
Note: The Atlantic Hurricane Season started June 1.
Maria, Michael, Harvey, Florence, Irma – over the past several years, we saw the devastation these severe hurricanes wrought across the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Together they caused hundreds of billions of dollars in destruction and devastated electric grids in the Caribbean.
We are moving into a whole new world of storms, with storm surges that are redefining what a storm surge is. In recent storms, including the floods in Texas, the ground was so heavily saturated with rain that the ground had nothing left to give. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) tells us that there are more 100-year floods than ever. This means that storms that were once estimated to happen once in a century are happening with much more frequency.
In working on recovering from these storms, we took away some valuable lessons on what this means for the grid going forward. I got to see firsthand the havoc that Hurricane Maria caused in the Caribbean in 2017. Everything relies on electricity – hospitals, clean water, communications – and all suffered in the prolonged outage that Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands had to endure.
This was truly a black sky scenario – a catastrophic event that
severely disrupts the normal functions of critical infrastructures in multiple areas
for long durations. And it was the purest version of a black sky event that this
country has seen.
Devastating storms can happen here on the mainland. Let’s not forget that some areas in the PJM footprint are still recovering from Superstorm Sandy – nearly seven years later.
So, how does PJM look forward and build a grid that can withstand the increasingly ferocious storms?
First, we have to look beyond typical bad weather or equipment outages that grid operators are required to prepare for under common reliability standards.
We have existing resources that can serve as valuable tools in establishing a resilient, flexible grid; they include microgrids, distributed energy resources and smart grid technologies.
Fundamentally, a microgrid is a system with its load designed to be serviced by dedicated capacity and the ability to segment itself from the larger grid. One of the primary benefits of a microgrid is the ability to provide reliable power during significant electric grid disturbances, such as storm outages. This benefit stems from having the generator in closer proximity to the loads being served, thus “shortening” the distribution and transmission lines whose disruption is often the cause of the outage.
One key variable in determining the ability of microgrids to truly be an asset for system flexibility is their visibility into smaller generation that often exists on the other side of the electric meter, which we call distributed energy resources (DER). How do the assets behave on the system? What will the effect be if the microgrid isolates or “islands” itself during a storm? Smart meters that measure two-way power flow from these resources (that both take energy from, and supply energy to, the grid) is one tool to get us there. Answering these questions when it comes to microgrids and DER will help us move toward true system-level resilience.
But how we aggregate the behind-the-meter resources remains a total enigma in an outage. We’ve got to know how to dispatch a great deal of rooftop solar, and install the inverter technology to do it to support a restoration, as opposed to saying, “I’ve got a bunch of resources that I can’t see on the grid.” (Inverters convert direct current from solar panels to alternating current that can be used by retail customers or fed back into the grid, and can potentially help grid operators maintain reliability during stressed conditions.) The resilient operation of the grid depends heavily on persistent visibility and real-time operation of the system, even during major events.
The Holistic Approach
The storm lessons are so numerous that there’s definitely a need to prioritize – we only have a certain amount of time. What we need may not fit the traditional cycle of planning , and that is the problem. Our processes are not designed to be that flexible – we can’t move as quickly as events occur.
Business as usual won’t work. We need to tackle everything in a more systematic manner. Our needs become more urgent once they are exposed by a significant event, and then you can’t assume that you have seven or eight years to get things done. At the same time, you don’t want to sacrifice the quality of work for speed. Rebuilding transmission doesn’t happen quickly.
We need a holistic approach with the emphasis on infrastructure improvement. This means more resilience and redundancy will have to be built into the system, and we need to develop better backup systems.
We need to understand how we integrate infrastructure improvements with the “supply“ side of the equation to ensure the availability of generation – traditional and DER – during these storms. WE need to develop the type of operating procedures specifically designed to mitigate the impacts of these major events that don’t fit into the box of traditional restoration.
Part of the answer is looking at solutions that we never thought we would need to. You can’t always move a substation, for example, but you might be able to raise or harden it.
Where it makes sense, go for redundancy instead of hardening. Hardening includes replacing wooden utility poles with poles made of steel, concrete or composite material and upgrading transmission tower materials. But not even those structures were designed to handle 180-mile-per-hour winds.
Some companies have been very responsive. That in itself is a very good signal. We’ve worked with
PSE&G on transmission and resilience upgrades in New Jersey, and that company is still updating equipment after Hurricane Sandy.
Right now, our biggest concern is what happens when the next storm comes. If the next storm comes too soon, will it set back progress?
Sooner or later, we are going to have to reconcile the lower costs of prevention versus the higher costs of repairs. We need to communicate to consumers that we want them to have a more resilient grid, but we understand that there are limits on what they can afford. At end of the day, so much of the conversation is trying to establish a common vision of what resilience ultimately means, because it is more critical than ever. It’s unrealistic to think that we can avoid these storms, but we can develop the flexibility to absorb their wrath, and come back better than before.