Urban Climate Resiliency: New Microgrid Systems for New Storms

By Matthew McEnerney & Jon Carbajal


Today, we stand at a crossroad where two complex challenges will either collide to make for an American future cast in the gloom of past glory or one enjoying prosperity, ingenuity, and resiliency that comes from being early innovators. The combination of increased natural disasters brought on by climate change and an ailing power grid infrastructure poses a serious problem to us all.

The more tangible consequences of climate change can be seen in increased natural disasters. Whatever happens in the decision making political theater of our country pertaining to climate change, one thing is certain: cities, Industry, corporations, utilities, trades, hospitals and others are already discussing how it will affect their futures. Every boardroom and every town has had a discussion on climate insecurity. According to a recent poll by the New York Times– a majority of adults (7 out of every 10) support action and innovation to battle climate change [1]. It’s reasonable to infer that this shift isn’t political or scientific, but rather the result from unpredictable and destructive disasters across the U.S. that produce a disruption to life, sense of safety, and funds.

Another ticking time-bomb to disarm is a predated electrical infrastructure inadequate for present demands. Constructed in the mid-20th century with a 50-year life expectancy, many parts of our power grid cannot meet today’s needs, nor severe weather events. Often a single downed line will overload other interconnected lines, setting off a cascade of failures. In 2015, Americans experienced a total of 3,571 outages, with an average duration of 49 minutes [2]. An especially recent example of this vulnerability could be seen just a few weeks ago, when a large blackout started at a PG&E substation and swept through San Francisco bringing everyday life to a virtual standstill [3]. As a result, homes, businesses, and courtrooms went dark. Traffic lights stopped working. Trains and cable car service shut down. Surgeries were interrupted. And the list goes on. Almost 100,000 San Franciscans were affected. City departments alone are claiming material losses of $187K [4].

The recent San Francisco power outage isn’t the first, nor will it be the last power issue in a major city after a disaster, whether accidental, natural, or manmade. In fact, the PG&E substation failure was fairly minor. Merely one piece of the complex power array failed, but the consequences devastated thousands of people. Hurricane Sandy offers another horrifying example of what can happen when cities don’t understand the value, nor the limitations of utility-tied renewable energy without autonomous/island capabilities. During the storm, flooded utility infrastructure created a multi-day power outage throughout the New York City area. Even though NYC and New Jersey had solar and other distributed resources, communities couldn’t take advantage of these resources when the main grid went down due to anti-islanding features of the system. As a safety feature for utilities, traditional grid-tied solar and wind systems are designed to shut-down when issues are present with the grid power. These systems are interconnected, as this is the case in systems that distribute renewable resources across the country.

Accidents happen on occasion, but we can control our response and preparedness. Superstorm events exacerbated by rising sea levels can cause our ailing power grid infrastructure to fail unexpectedly. In the aftermath of natural disasters, recovery policies have been the topic of confusion, and wasted grant money and public financial resources. Power grid modernization activities pale in comparison to projects like house lifting, seawalls, dunes and marsh restoration. The development of a more resilient electrical grid has been hindered by the power grid’s complexities, financial factors, and political willpower. However, the future looks bright. A drastic reduction in solar and battery costs, alongside scalable software solutions, has permanently changed what is possible.

We should be resilient enough to prevent a blackout, or at least mitigate effects when it does happen. We can do this with urban microgrids. In present day, utilities, regulators, and vendors work together to deliver smart renewable energy systems that don’t shut down when the grid shuts down, but instead can help prevent blackouts and function when PG&E or ConEd face an unexpected disaster. Today’s solar power has never been cheaper, and the cost of energy storage is quickly decreasing too. Their ubiquity on the grid is unavoidable. Smart solar energy systems coupled with other resources, like CHPs and backup generators, can work with utilities to ensure customers’ critical loads still work when the next substation fire happens– ensuring that elevators, transit trains, traffic lights, and operating rooms still function. New York regulators have identified energy storage technology in particular as becoming more efficient and economical over the last decade, leading to increased wide spread use [5]. When you combine these technology improvements and existing assets on the ground, we see a lot of untapped potential to turn the more vulnerable urban communities into resilient microgrids.

In the wake of Sandy, solar companies donated equipment across the New York metropolitan area to function as emergency power systems if such a catastrophe was to happen again. The smartest people in the metaphorical energy room have made it clear: Creating smaller and more decentralized ways of generating and storing electricity help ease strain on the grid in times of high demand or failure. The willpower and technology exist. It’s no longer a question of if, but of when.

A city being hit by a Sandy or Katrina is no longer a question, it’s a statistical certainty. Grid resiliency is now within the hands of utilities, cities, and visionary businesses. We have the tools to protect our people and our grid. Will the complexity of navigating the web of existing infrastructure, stakeholders, financing, and technology vendors overwhelm us to point of inaction? Or will we leverage both the knowledge of increasing frequencies of natural disasters and the desire for economic growth resulting from microgrid innovations as motivation to protect our cities?