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One hundred and fifty-five thousand meters in ten states are still without power from the grid as a result of storms that occurred at the end of June.  The household occupants and business owners relying on these meters sweltered and tallied up the impacts of losses caused by that lack of power. Predictably, there were immediate calls for undergrounding all lines to ensure that future storms do not cause the widespread and lengthy disruptions that occurred in those states and Washington, DC.  To do that in the nation’s capital is estimated to cost between $5 million to $15 million per mile.  And even undergrounded lines can still suffer disruptions.  As noted in last week’s article, we need to think quite differently about how to design and deploy the Smart Grid to gracefully respond to disruptions.

Our 20th century grid, designed for centralized electricity generation and remote transmission, can benefit from new Smart Grid technologies that deliver resiliency through distributed generation for local consumption.  Resiliency is a term that is often associated with self-healing communications networks.  It describes the intelligent and automated ability to find alternate paths to transmit signals if a specific route is blocked.  From conceptual and practical perspectives, resiliency focuses on prioritized recovery of service during and after disruptions.  The Departments of Energy (DOE) and Homeland Security (DHS) made a start in this direction to identify vulnerabilities and develop a strategy for “designing, installing, and maintaining a resilient energy delivery system capable of surviving a cyber incident while sustaining critical functions.”  The DOE’s Office of Electricity’s Infrastructure Security and Energy Restoration Division (ISER) is also engaged in research in “energy assurance” – looking at security, resiliency and survivability of key energy assets and critical energy infrastructure.

Engineering a Smart Grid with resiliency is essential to address disruptions caused by cyberattack.  But the government’s focus should expand beyond its limited grid infrastructure and cyber security orientation for economic as well as homeland security reasons.  As the recent storm-related outages have amply demonstrated, our grid is exceptionally vulnerable due to its reliance on wireline transmission and distribution of electricity from centralized generation assets.

Microgrids, distributed energy resources (DER), and distributed microgeneration can help maintain minimized electric service at a hyperlocal level.  The Solar Energy Technologies Program is researching the systems integration challenges and opportunities of wide scale, distributed solar assets tied to the grid.   Increasingly sophisticated grid management software and communications networks that connect DER assets to utility operations centers present interesting opportunities to inject resiliency into the Smart Grid.  With these technologies, it is possible to react to disruptions in the distribution grid and activate commands to DER assets that allocate at least minimal levels of electricity to local connections.  However, we need new regulatory policies and metrics that encourage utilities and consumers – both residential and business – to invest in these solutions to build resiliency as well as reliability into the Smart Grid.  For instance, Germany created a feed-in tariff (FiT) that applies to combined heat and power (CHP)deployments to encourage investments in these extremely energy efficient solutions.

Similar policies in the USA could encourage deployment of grid-tied microgrids and other DER assets, just as existing FiTs have spurred rooftop solar deployments.  A resilient grid based on widespread DER with prioritized delivery could help “keep the lights on” for more customers despite disruptions caused by weather or human factors.

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