Monday, July 23, 2012

Who Turned Out the Lights on the Power Grid?

If you are one of the millions on the East Coast who has lost power as a result of storms, you know how fragile the electric grid can be. An aging transmission system and increasingly bad weather means that lots of Americans have gone without air conditioning in triple-digit temperatures.
U.S. Power Grid Lines. Image courtesy of US Infrastructure.

As many question what can be done to limit the number and duration of power outages, it’s worth noting that as grid reliability is going down, the reliability of self-generated electricity is on the rise. The U.S. military is examining distributed generation (DG) as a possible safety net against terrorist attacks and programs like the Automated Demand Response for emergency generators provide an early example of how DG can help reliability.

Currently, waste-to-energy projects are struggling to match the low cost of grid-supplied electricity. While the gap in price between the two is closing, there is still a measured distance between them. The issue of reliability has been largely absent from discussions of the benefits smaller scale WTE projects and Better BTU thinks that now, amid the power outages, would be a good time to bring it up.

When a large factory or industrial site loses power for an extended period of time, the cost can be catastrophic. While a backup generator may protect the most critical portions of the plant, the company still faces a huge loss. Therefore, companies should factor in peace of mind and continuity when contemplating WTE projects, especially as grid reliability continues to deteriorate.   
As the reliability of the traditional power grid sinks,
newer, self-generated technologies are on the rise. 

Carnegie Mellon University researchers Anu Narayanan and M. Granger Morgan recently published a report in July’s issue of Risk Analysis discussing their solution to the increasing power outages. They propose incorporating a combination of distributed automation as well as smart meters to direct electricity to “critical” social services such as grocery stores, gas stations and schools. (hospitals and such should still be on backup generators they suggest). In response to an article in the Washington Post on the pair’s report, Scott Sklar, adjunct professor at American University and George Washington University points out that when Hurricane Katrina hit the gulf, Louisiana and Mississippi had plenty of diesel fuel to power the backup engines but couldn’t pump it out of the ground or power trucks to transport it because the electric grid was destroyed.

While we think that mass incorporation of smart meters is at least a decade away, we do agree with Narayanan and Morgan that smaller scale WTE plants could be used to provide electricity when the grid goes down. Unfortunately, state laws in more than half the country prohibit private operators from supplying even small amounts of power to anyone other than the pubic utility. Since large utilities view smaller WTE projects as competition, it is unlikely these companies will support such changes in legislature.

It is laws like these that have prevented the wider adoption of DG that you see in other countries such as Germany and Japan. But with an aging grid and increased frequency in power outages, we think it’s something that should really be looked at.

Further Reading:

The Next Outage Doesn't Have to Be This BadThe Washington Post, July 6, 2012

Easy Fix Eludes Power Outage Problems in U.S.WPVI-TV Philadelphia, Pa., July 3, 2012

1 comment:

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