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Smart Grid Technology May Help Sustain Vital Social Services During Blackouts

'Keeping the lights on' can be a challenge during extreme weather and other disasters like those affecting the East Coast of the U.S. this summer, but real options may be available to avoid some of the power-related crises that follow upon such events.

Leading researchers from Carnegie Mellon University suggest that rethinking the solution to sustaining electric power—namely, starting small—could keep critical services going, even when the high-voltage 'grid' is crippled.

It is worth noting that the U.S. military is already taking steps to protect its power supplies in the event of a massive grid failure by adopting small, local energy technologies, and California Governor Jerry Brown recently announced that he wants 12,000 megawatts of such power supplies in his state.

This natural disaster demonstrated that, despite ongoing efforts to improve electric power transmission reliability, the risk of prolonged regional blackouts remains a significant concern. To combat future widespread and extended power outages, Carnegie Mellon University researchers have devised a strategy to use local distributed electricity generation, distribution automation, and smart meters to form small electricity “islands” that would support critical social services in the event of a substantial disruption resulting from extreme weather, terrorism, or other causes.

Distributed generation (DG) collects and distributes electricity from many small energy sources rather than relying on large centralized power facilities. Carnegie Mellon University researchers Anu Narayanan and M. Granger Morgan examined the incremental cost of adding DG units and smart meters to a hypothetical community of 5,000 households covering an area of 5 km2. The research was conducted with funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and Carnegie Mellon University. The study, titled “Sustaining Critical Social Services During Extended Regional Power Blackouts,” appears in the July 2012 issue of Risk Analysis, published by the Society for Risk Analysis.

Under normal operation, large centralized utility generators send electricity along a high-voltage transmission system to a low-voltage distribution system that ultimately delivers power to homes, schools, police stations and other local consumers. An extreme disturbance such as a hurricane can disrupt the high-voltage transmission system and eliminate power to entire regions. Under the Narayanan and Morgan strategy, electricity circuits would be manually or automatically rerouted to form isolated energy islands powered by local DG units. To achieve a “smart grid” DG system, utility companies would need to install smart meters that can efficiently disconnect non-critical loads, add automated components to reroute electricity circuits, and upgrade fault-handling equipment and control software to ensure the smaller grid’s reliability.

Community social services deemed “critical” during a substantial power outage could include a subset of community grocery stores, gas stations, cellular telephone base stations, streetlights, police stations, and schools. The authors estimate that for their model community 350 kW of power would be necessary to continue these services during a blackout, but this limited power supply could be cycled between the services. For example, the school could be operated in day shifts for elementary, middle, and high school students and then close at night, when the police station could be powered at full capacity. Beyond those basic necessities, communities could invest in backup power for water and sewage treatment, traffic lights, and the local jail. Additional arrangements would need to provide for temperature control if a blackout occurred in a region or season that required heating or cooling for basic survival. Most hospitals, airports, and radio and television broadcasting stations already possess independent emergency backup power supplies.

Narayanan and Morgan studied the costs of building regional DG circuits to support critical social services. Scenarios vary based on whether a region has zero, limited, or sufficient existing DG capacity. If enough DG units already exist within a region, the costs include the fee to purchase the options to acquire 350 kW during a blackout. If a region has insufficient existing DG infrastructure, the costs of installing new DG units and providing maintenance are key. Other considerations include the use of public or private financing options to fund a DG project and the probability of an extended regional blackout. The researchers estimate that the cost per household for implementing various DG scenarios would be $9 to $22 per year for risk probabilities ranging from 0.01 to 0.0001. Even the highest cost estimate is far less than 1 percent of an assumed median household income of $50,000, providing support for switching to DG units. The potential costs to a community resulting from a large power outage also must be factored into decisions about whether to invest in these upgrades.

Strategically constructing regional DG circuits may help to reduce the effects of catastrophic electricity failure resulting from natural or human-triggered events, ensuring that critical services necessary for the health and safety of communities will be provided. The authors note that this strategy would be most effectively implemented on a statewide or regional level to prevent the influx of citizens from neighboring communities that lack such an emergency power procedure to ensure critical social services.

Narayanan notes, “There are currently a few obstacles to implementing such a strategy, including state laws that prevent the deployment of cost-effective combined heat and power (CHP) ‘microgrids,’ and the lack of incentive for power companies to invest in such a system. We have the technology to make our critical services less vulnerable to large blackouts. What we need now are the right policy initiatives to make it happen.”

Risk Analysis: An International Journal is published by the nonprofit Society for Risk Analysis (SRA). SRA is a multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, scholarly, international society that provides an open forum for all those who are interested in risk analysis. Risk analysis is defined broadly to include risk assessment, risk characterization, risk communication, risk management, and policy relating to risk, in the context of risks of concern to individuals, to public and private sector organizations, and to society at a local, regional, national, or global level.

Contact: Steve Gibb, 202.422.5425 to arrange an interview with the author(s).
Note to editors: This study is available upon request from Steve Gibb or here:

Steve Gibb | Newswise Science News
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