Energy IQ: Power Outages: The Quiet But Costly Side Effect of Extreme Weather
How to keep the lights on and our critical facilities up and running when even the most extreme and unpredictable weather strikes.
It is a windy Friday evening in early August. You’re sitting on your couch, but you can't relax. You’re preoccupied, with your ears and eyes tuned to your phone and TV for the latest weather updates. The impending hurricane is now classified as a Category 4. Living on the Gulf Coast, you're used to hearing this news; but this time your family is in the hurricane’s path. You worry about the likely power outages or worse.
You ask yourself, "Why us?"
It's not just you, and it's not just the coastal communities either. From hurricanes and wild fires to heat waves and winter storms, changing and unpredictable weather patterns impact communities around the world.
Extreme Weather: The New Norm?
Residents of the United States' Gulf Coast have experienced above average hurricane activity over the last three years, and the hurricanes are getting stronger. Hurricanes disrupt communities, frequently requiring residents to temporarily relocate with considerable financial losses for families.
Wild fires are increasingly captured on the news as they get larger and more destructive. It is estimated that nearly 85 percent of wild land fires are caused by humans, yet the drier and hotter climate acts as a catalyst driving a trend toward larger and more severe wild fires.
We also experience more heat waves, as the hot days are getting hotter and occur more frequently. Heat waves are notoriously deadly not only for the very young and elderly, but also for those living in urban areas or who work outdoors. The heatwave that hit Europe in 2003 claimed more than 70,000 lives.
How Much More Stress Can Our Grid Take?
These changing weather patterns also impact the electricity infrastructure. Hurricanes and wildfires bring down transmission or distribution lines and force power plant closures, leaving consumers without electricity. Heat waves increase the usage of some power-hungry amenities including air conditioners; therefore, causing a surge in the demand for electricity. This surge could result in an overheating grid or lack of electricity supply. Both could result in black-outs.
Powering every day needs such as keeping the lights on and ensuring that hospitals and nursing homes operate without interruption is a complex challenge that requires a multi-faceted solution.
Here is a look at how the industry is improving grid resiliency to keep the power running.
- Hardening the Grid: Improvements such as underground utility lines, poles resistant to higher wind speeds, improved vegetation management and elevated electrical equipment as protection from flooding are some of the examples. These improvements aim to create an infrastructure that is physically more durable against severe weather events.
- Increasing System Capability: Additional lines to increase capacity of electricity flow and automated fault isolation using intelligent switches are common improvements on the transmission side. Equipment health sensors throughout the infrastructure automate outage detection and service restoration. Energy storage options could be useful during shorter outages, offering the advantage of getting online faster. Distributed generation applications could mitigate the risk of major outages caused by a central power plant going offline due to severe weather.
“There are two ways distributed generation improves the resiliency of the grid during severe weather," said Satish Jayaram, General Manager of Distributed Generation at Cummins Inc. "First is the proximity to electricity consumers. Distributed generation resources tend to be closer to consumers compared to central generation assets, and require less transmission and distribution lines, fewer power lines at risk to be impacted by severe weather.
Second is the geographical spread of electricity generating assets. Central generation assets offer benefits such as one place to deliver fuel, one place to do repairs, but also presents the risk of one place to rely on for electricity, especially if this one place is on the path of a hurricane or wild fire. A combination of centralized and distributed generation improves the resiliency of the grid, as distributed generation resources are geographically spread out, presenting less likelihood of all of them being impacted with severe weather."
- Integrating Consumers Through Smart Devices: Using technologies such as smart meters and connected thermostats help utilities operate more effectively during severe weather. Utilities and grid operators could make decisions based on real time info collected from these smart devices, making their recovery efforts more effective. They can also adjust electricity demand from consumers through these smart devices, decreasing the strain on the infrastructure.
- Managing the Risk: U.S. Department of Energy calls out managing risk as the number one priority to achieve grid resiliency. This includes creating effective policies and plans, and conducting exercises to mitigate hazards.
As the electricity industry continues to improve the grid resiliency, an outage is still unacceptable for many consumers, especially those whose life depends on continuous operation of medical devices at their homes. For other consumers, the monetary cost and inconveniences associated with a loss of power is significant.
Such costs can lead to an increase in the adoption of whole house generators as a back-up power source for consumers. For example, residents with Cummins whole house generators mitigate the costs associated with an extended power outage and keep their family safe and comfortable during the outage. To understand how much power your family needs, use Cummins’ online generator size calculator.
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