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“Despite continuing efforts to make the electric power system robust, some risk remains of widespread and extended power outages due to extreme weather or acts of terrorism. One way to alleviate the most serious effects of a prolonged blackout is to find local means to secure the continued provision of critical social services upon which the health and safety of society depend. This article outlines and estimates the incremental cost of a strategy that uses small distributed generation, distribution automation, and smart meters to keep a set of critical social services operational during a prolonged power outage that lasts for days or weeks and extends over hundreds of kilometers.” Narayanan and Morgan

In my own personal experience, the rare power outages I’ve experienced have been more exciting than scary, or even worse, life-threatening. Basically, when the lights go off unexpectedly, in my family we go outside to see that our neighborhood lights are out too – check - then we call the power company to report the outage – check - then, the fun starts! We get to pretend that we’re camping - in our house! - a board game by candle light, maybe some ghost stories, then off to bed early – we may need to open the windows and sleep on top of the sheets – where are those battery-powered fans? Then, without fail it seems, we wake up in the morning to “back-to-normal,” but with flashing clocks we have to reset. At least that’s how it happened last summer.

Not so fast. That was then, this is now. Now, we seem to be emerging into a New Normal, as suggested by recent events in the Mid-Atlantic this summer, or last winter in New England, or [insert recent massive grid outage here]. Now, it seems the outages of my personal recollection are far less representative of what a power outage is likely to entail these days, and perhaps even more frequently into the future. Now, it looks like we really need a new game plan, and soon, if the weirding weather stands ready to deal such a crippling blow to our critical infrastructure that the resulting outage lasts for days, not hours. Now, it makes less and less sense to simply react and repair, when these Acts of God begin to occur more regularly, and exact more damage. An outage, after all, becomes less novel with regularity and increasing severity. Rethinking the notion of “system reliability” would necessarily start by asking and answering some critical questions, and a dose of brutal honesty in our assessment would help too. Are we prepared for this new norm? Do we need to rethink what it means to have a reliable power system?

My recent articles in this forum over the last two weeks - Our Outdated Grid: An Intolerable Situation and The Strong Grid: Beyond Smart raised these issues, so I was intrigued when I stumbled on this study titled “Sustaining Critical Social Services During Extended Regional Power Blackouts,” included in the July issue of Risk Analysis (published by the Society for Risk Analysis).  Anu Narayanan and M. Granger Morgan, with the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, first published this article online back in December 2011.  

This very readable 11-page article begins by asking the critical questions that need answering, offering a great jumping off point for a rigorous discussion about one possible redefinition of “system reliability.” First, they ponder how we might combine smart grid additions to those distribution grids with distribution automation and distributed generation to make our society less vulnerable – are there new tools at hand that we might use to test these concepts? Next, they ask what additional costs would be needed to implement such solutions – what are the economic considerations? Then, they wonder how long and how likely such a blackout would need to be for such a system to make sense economically – what is the fundamental payback? Finally, they consider policy options that would ensure sensible applications of this approach – how can we make sure this works as policy?

Interestingly, the model system they introduce starts with distributed generation (in place or added) in a region inside the distribution grid. It contemplates sharing the output of those resources with loads throughout a neighborhood or district, including power to maintain operability for one or more grocery stores, gas stations, cell phone base stations, police stations, and schools. In this model, they contemplate what it would look like for a minimum number of shared services in such locations to remain available during a prolonged outage, and outline the steps needed to leverage automatic connect/disconnect features of the smart meters to intentionally island most loads, leaving the system available to distribute the power from the distributed generation resources to designated connected meters.

The article assesses the costs involved (manageable), the economic feasibility of such an approach (surprisingly affordable), concluding that the social impacts of having power in just a few locations make sense, but that practicality may argue for a statewide or national approach through Homeland Security, given that hungry, hot, or angry crowds might overwhelm facilities that still had power. Planning needed.

Back in 2009, we made similar conclusions during the Pecan Street Project discussions, which we captured in Chapter 5 of The Advanced Smart Grid. I argued back then that it would make sense to target special rebates and programs to support deployment of solar PV and other distributed generation adjacent to such disaster relief centers as church and school auditoriums. This seems a natural, constructive role for Homeland Security to play, no doubt a politically savvy move that would win credit for DHS during an actual outage (anyone listening?).

It seems logical to start having such discussions at the community or regional planning level. The distributed technologies are increasingly available and affordable, what is lacking are the vision and creativity to imagine what a truly reliable system might look like – no storm would lay society low and leave the weak and feeble without life-sustaining services. No storm would leave folks to swelter in unbearable heat for days at a time with no resources at hand. These are goals to aspire to for a modern society in this age. I encourage readers of this article to take the time to check out Narayanan and Morgan’s well thought out article and offer feedback below.

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