Navigant Research Blog

Questions on “Dirty Energy” Highlight DC-Based Nanogrids

— February 7, 2014

The United States set a record in 2013 for billion-dollar disasters, according to the Annual Global Climate and Catastrophe Report.  Yet, the $41 billion in economic losses paled in comparison to those of 2012, the year of Tropical Cyclone Sandy ($65 billion in damage) and widespread drought ($30 billion in damage).

These disasters, and the power outages and demand for emergency energy services they entail, are fueling interest in microgrids not only in the United States, but also in the developing world.  But, what if these microgrids, so dependent upon smart inverters, were to accelerate the creation of a new form of dirty electricity – pulsing electromagnetic fields that could grow even more intense as power sources and control technologies increase radio frequencies (RFs)?

Such concerns led to a recent gathering at the prestigious Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, California, at which speakers attempted to articulate the different between a wise grid and a smart grid.  Among the panelists was Dr. Timothy Schoechle, the author of a recent paper entitled Getting Smarter about the Smart Grid and a guest on a radio show I was a part of on KWMR.

The RF Question

The discussion focused on utility deployments of smart meters, as Schoechle observed that these meters often rely on wireless communications that, according to some scientists, jeopardize the health of growing numbers of citizens who have no choice in the matter.  RF waves are ubiquitous, and smart meters are increasing the density of this RF blanket that envelops us – and that has not been subjected to sufficient scientific scrutiny, these critics argue.  At the same time, some assert that smart meters have failed to deliver the purported economic benefits to most consumers.

Ironically enough, during the same week, The World Bank hosted a webinar on the topic of rural electrification that extolled the virtue of wireless telecommunications as a driver of economic livelihood for those living at the bottom of the pyramid.  As pointed out in a previous blog of mine, among the chief drivers for providing more affordable electricity to the poor in the developing world is wireless cell phone technology.  In many places in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, millions of people are more likely to have a cell phone than access to reliable electricity.  Since banks will lend money to large multinationals installing cell phone towers in the middle of nowhere, small local entrepreneurs can then piggy-back on these investments to expand electricity service.

In a sense, this approach is working and is more often than not delivering direct current (DC), which, as Schoechle claimed in San Francisco, is the cleanest form of electricity from an electromagnetic point of view.  In fact, he argues, the best way to deliver what many consider to be the lifeblood of modern civilization is through DC nanogrids – a technology platform that is the subject of my next report.


Polar Vortex Sparks Wintertime Demand Response

— January 23, 2014

Polar vortex became the first catchphrase of 2014 in the United States.  It was no joke, though, as the phenomenon led to record low temperatures and several deaths around the country.  The cold snap also took its toll on the electric grid, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without power across a large swath of the nation.  There could have been even more outages had demand response (DR) not been at the disposal of system operators as a step in their emergency procedures.

PJM, ERCOT, and NYISO all set new winter peak demand records due to the heating requirements that the frigid temperatures required.  When you combine record demand with power plant and transmission line outages that can be caused by the cold weather, electric grids can quickly get into emergency situations where they need to call on reserves to prevent forced load shedding, otherwise known as brownouts or blackouts.

Prior to this winter, ISO-NE activated its DR system in response to grid and weather conditions during the winter in each of the past 2 years, and ERCOT called one winter event a few years ago, while PJM and NYISO have never had winter DR activations.  ISO-NE called an event this past December as well – on a Saturday night no less – due to generator outages, but it survived the vortex without having to implement DR.  The rest of the regions all dispatched their DR resources at some point during the vortex conditions, and all of them succeeded in avoiding further emergency steps like blackouts.

Load Spikes

ERCOT was the first region to call DR as the cold wave swept East across the country.  It activated its contracted DR customers and put out a general conservation notice to all consumers.

PJM actually deployed DR twice in 1 day due to higher-than-anticipated morning load ramp and an evening peak load spike, as seen in the chart below.

PJM Load Curves on January 7, 2014

(Source: PJM)

NYISO dispatched DR for a 6-hour stretch and took the additional step of encouraging consumers to conserve electricity by lowering thermostats and turning off major electric appliances.

It’s too early to get verified performance results, but the main test was passed by avoiding blackouts.

Year-Round DR

The winter is hardly over yet, so there could be more DR activity coming up this season.  The vortex may have been a rare event, but all ISO/RTOs will now take a much closer look at its DR performance requirements for the winter.  PJM is in the process of including an annual DR product that would require mandatory participation year-round, as opposed to its traditional summer-only program.  ERCOT will analyze whether it should increase payments for winter peak periods to incentivize more participation.  ISO-NE was preparing to handle winter grid reliability prior to this season due to the shortage of natural gas pipeline infrastructure in the region, which could lead to fuel shortages for gas-fired generators.  It developed a special winter DR program, which is intended to be implemented prior to the regular emergency DR program, to shore up the system before it reaches that stage.

This new reality will put a lot of stress on DR as an operational resource.  A large portion of typical DR is based on air conditioning curtailment, which is not much help in the winter.  Some large industrial facilities have stable load year-round, and some industries, like ski resorts, have more load in the winter.  However, the majority of commercial and residential customers will not be able to fully participate in an annual DR program.  DR providers will have to be cognizant of where customers’ limits lie, and create new technologies and strategies to minimize pain and maximize performance.


Zombie Dread Fuels Microgrid Market

— August 2, 2013

Extraordinary weather events, such as hurricanes Sandy and Irene, have led the state of Connecticut to plow a total of $18 million into microgrids strategically located across the state, with nine projects now under construction.  An additional $30 million for additional microgrids was recently approved by state lawmakers.  Other East Coast states, including New York, are considering similar moves as a response to extreme weather events apparently linked to global climate change.

Microgrid fever is also spreading to the Midwest, where it was announced in late July that nine states will collaborate under the umbrella of the Mid-West Energy Research Consortium (M-WERC) to pursue economic development and new jobs initiatives linked to microgrid components and systems, with an eye toward opportunities in key export markets.

Many baby boomers recall the advent of bomb shelters in the 1950s.  I recall as a kid going down into one such chamber on the outskirts of Milwaukee, marveling at all the rows and rows of canned goods, not to mention my first glimpse of a Playboy calendar.  With the thawing of the Cold War, the bomb shelter fad faded away, though I still wonder what happened to all those well-stocked underground bunkers.

Undead Attack

The September 11th attacks failed to re-ignite interest in these old-school answers to disaster threats, though it certainly played a role in prompting the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) to re-evaluate its power supply security, and to begin developing various types of microgrids for domestic military bases as well as for remote outposts overseas in hostile regions, such as Afghanistan.

The appeal of these resilient islands of reliable power is also attracting a constituency not normally interested in the power grid infrastructure: survivalists.  A whimsical story posted by the Rocky Mountain Institute linked microgrids to the growing fear of zombie invasion, fueled by Hollywood’s recent obsession with the living dead in movies, such as World War Z.  (14% of the U.S. public believes a zombie apocalypse could happen in the next several years, according to a YouGov survey.)

Fear of the undead is being matched by real projects, such as one project in Kansas developed by a Colorado company called Sustainable Power Systems. Known as the Kansas Survival Condo, this system was constructed in an abandoned Atlas-F missile silo that reaches 200 feet below the earth’s surface.  But unlike the primitive bomb shelters constructed by your parents in the 1950s, this structure relies upon state-of-the-art microgrid technology.  The 500 kW power supply system, which is normally interconnected with the utility grid but can operate islanded in the event of grid outage, incorporates a mix of diesel generation (200 kW), wind power (100 kW), and advanced lead acid batteries (200 kW) to power up unusual loads that include a spa, pool, movie theater, and aquaculture food system.

Will the design and development of this kind of super-deluxe hidey hole, complete with a self-sustaining microgrid, become a viable business? That remains to be seen.  Whether you’re worried about zombies, the terrorist threat, or global climate change, though, the appeal of self-sufficient power infrastructure is on the rise, and survivalists will not be the only new constituency recognizing the possibilities now available with off-grid technology.


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