The majority of us take our energy for granted, just like our air and water. But let’s take a closer look. Already under siege, our air and water are suffering from the effects of pollution and climate change. The good news is that steps are being taken to help. But what about our energy?
We flip the switch and our lights go on, right? Actually, there’s ever-increasing uncertainty about the stability of our critical energy resources—and not the temporary uncertainty from big natural disasters or the occasional summer brown-out. We’ve got three potentially big problems just now showing up on the horizon that could start reading like a Hollywood movie plot.
One: Climate Change
It’s now well-established that there will be increases in the variability of weather, with more and more “extreme” weather events. In the past, we’ve seen the effects of Hurricane Sandy where,
in addition to property loss, there were billions of dollars lost because the grid was down. What we didn’t see was that the power was out for an extended time afterward for some of the residences. Unfortunately, there were houses with solar PV panels, that were just sitting there, absorbing the sun after the storm, generating electricity that was going nowhere, not even to the homeowners.
Two: International Terrorism
We have increasing instability in the world, which is mostly of the crude thuggery variety. But it wouldn’t take much for these various thugs to want to disrupt the grid by whatever means possible, and taking down the grid is not out of the realm of possibility. Ted Koppel’s recent book Lights Out reveals the possibility of a major cyber-attack on America’s power grid and explains the potentially-devastating effects.
Three: Foreign Agent Web Hacking
The third developing problem are an assortment of bad guys that are either opportunistic or are directed by foreign governments to mess things up. The most recent example of this is the hacking of the DNC’s files (most likely by Russia), where the emails were released just before the convention in an attempt to inflict maximum political damage i.e. weaponized hacking. But even more prevalent is an onslaught of ransom-taking hackers who break into a company’s servers, install malware, demand payment in Bitcoin, and threaten even greater damage. Cyber ransom demands have exploded, with hackers hitting hundreds of businesses every day, encrypting hard drives and providing the decryption key only when paid. According to estimates from the FBI, these attacks cost $200 million in the first quarter of 2016. By the way, the utilities are “businesses,” and by the way, they have servers, too, which control our grid. Do I need to spell it out?
It’s not any leap to know that these players, as they develop increased sophistication, could easily make the progression to our energy gird, starting with smaller communities, and perhaps expanding up to a regional grid. As I said, this is a quintessential movie plot—except that there’s reality here.
But if it’s a movie plot, who’s the hero?
In many ways, the microgrid has the potential to be the problem-solver hero of the day for these three big problems.
Take Hurricane Sandy for example: With a microgrid at the house, the thinking goes, our “hero” could be up and running independently right away. In concept, this is true. However, in practice it’s still in the side-kick stage, more like a Robin to Batman. In superhero terms, we’ve got Robin and he’s still in training.
On a small-scale, it’s possible to have a micro-grid that will provide the insurance we need. It won’t of course stop the problems, but it will at least allow us to carry on. Microgrids are now developed enough that a homeowner or small commercial enterprise could put it together without incurring prohibitive costs or eye-blurring complexity. With a couple pieces of hardware (solar panels, some lead-acid batteries, a good inverter, and maybe a diesel generator) you can have your energy insurance for the price of a good used car. Maybe not quite the hero yet, but it’s Robin after all.
If you really want Batman, you’ve got to get the attention of the Gotham leaders and send up the signal. There are all the pieces for the Batman-sized solution, but here the complexity does start to generate blurred vision. Still, there are smart people who wear glasses that can see this stuff very clearly, and it’s good that we have them on our team. They may want some money for this but, in the end, it is possible to make large microgrids that can serve a community or even a region.
There are now a few examples of the Batman solution; one of them is the University of California at San Diego (UCSD). UCSD runs a 50MW microgrid that provides about 95% of the school’s needs, according to John Dilliott, the man in charge of this operation. From what I’ve seen, John should be wearing glasses (maybe even trifocals)! The UCSD microgrid can detach from the SoCal utility and support the university and has done so in the past. On one occasion, the utility needed help, and not only did the UCSD microgrid cover its own slightly-reduced needs, but it provided energy to the utility in an emergency capacity. I would say it saved the day, but this happened at night.
These types of examples like UCSD are now starting to become that much more important, providing us with learning paths to grow our army of “heros.” We have the need; we have the wherewithal; and we are starting to have the solutions. OK. Let’s get the e-Batmobile powered up (EV Batmobile right?)!
Now, where do I get a commission from a movie production company for the script?
Learn more from HeatSpring’s Sustainable Scholar Dr. Andy Skumanich by enrolling in his Microgrid Design and Implementation Course!