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Each new large-scale natural disaster delivers its own unique cocktail of heartache and damage, but the need to modernize the electrical grid is a common denominator—growing only more glaring with each new setback.

More than 8 million people along the U.S. East Coast were rendered powerless in the wake of October 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, for example. Many homes and businesses remained dark for more than a week.

The globally emerging smart grid, of course, will not eliminate the threat of devastation, but developing aspects of the next-generation infrastructure would mitigate against the scope and span of a natural disaster’s harm. The smart grid could both reduce the number of homes and businesses cut off from power and reduce the length of outages for those who do sustain them. Consider the possibilities of just two of the applications enabled by a more intelligent system of two-way, interstate power and information flow: distributed generation and microgrids.

The smart grid promises a tremendously strengthened capability for distributed generation, in which utilities leverage power from a variety of large- and small-scale distributed-generation sources and share power flexibly across their customer sectors depending on real-time intelligence on supply and demand. Interconnection methods for solar, wind and other distributed generation technologies such as electric-vehicle batteries have matured, opening the possibility of decentralizing power production and fostering a dramatically more resilient and secure grid. Furthermore, from the user’s perspective, expanded distributed generation stands to lower costs (by enabling homes and businesses to offset part of their consumption of utility-provided power or selling power back to the grid) and provide an on-site power source that can be leveraged when regular utility service is interrupted in an emergency.

Microgrids build on the concept of distributed generation to enable additional valuable benefits with particular relevance to the smart grid’s potential to help mitigate against the harm of natural disasters.

Fuel cells, solar thermal generating stations, photovoltaic fields, wind farms, diesel, natural-gas-fired turbines, microturbines and other renewable and non-renewable sources of energy can be aggregated in a microgrid. Multiple distributed-generation technologies, in fact, might be engaged within a single area to form a concentrated, flexible cluster of power that could be flexibly connected to or isolated from the traditional power grid, depending on the utility’s and/or user’s needs in terms of normal or peak demand conditions or reliability issues. In a natural disaster, these options are especially valuable when, for example, a microgrid could automatically detach from the greater grid and continue to deliver power to sectors of customers in abnormal conditions. And this would enable utilities, too, to more strategically and efficiently deploy resources to damaged areas of the grid to make repairs and restore service.

Crucial standards work around interconnection and interoperability has intensified in recent years, paving the way for more robust capabilities of distributed generation and microgrids to be cost-effectively, securely and safely deployed. Published in 2003 and reaffirmed in 2008, IEEE 1547™ “Standard for Interconnecting Distributed Resources with Electric Power Systems” provides broadly adopted requirements relevant to the performance, operation, testing, safety considerations and maintenance of interconnection of distributed-generation resources. And IEEE 2030® “Guide for Smart Grid Interoperability of Energy Technology and Information Technology Operation with the Electric Power System (EPS), End-Use Applications, and Loads,” ratified in 2011, is the first all-encompassing IEEE standard on smart-grid interoperability, detailing guidelines for smart-grid design criteria and reference model applications. IEEE 1547 and IEEE 2030 are two of more than 100 globally relevant standards or standards in progress that pertain to the smart grid.

In turn, then, the smart grid’s capabilities are advancing, too, out in the field of real-world deployment. Per a Nov. 26, 2012, article in Government Technology, A microgrid system at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and General Services Administration (GSA) campus in White Oak, Md., disconnected from the power grid during Hurricane Sandy. While thousands of its Maryland neighbors suffered service outages, the campus continued to draw on its microgrid as a power source.

With natural disasters of such tremendous magnitude apparently growing more frequent, the need is growing more urgent to better position ourselves to cope with and recover from future events. Rollout of the smart grid’s expanded capabilities for distributed generation and microgrids will render society better prepared to absorb nature’s harshest blows.

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