Life After Sandy: How NYC is Improving Its Electric Grid

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a short series on creating resilient cities, sponsored by Siemens. Please join us for a live Google Hangout with Siemens and Arup on October 1, where we’ll talk about this issue live! RSVP here.

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The 9-foot storm surge from Superstorm Sandy, which came on top of a 5-foot high tide, inundated the low-lying areas of the city — wiping out electrical service to substantial portions of the city, and ultimately causing some $50 billion worth of damage. Approximately 800,000 customers lost power in the city, along with millions more along the East Coast. The question posed in a recent toolkit was was: What actions can be taken to reduce the impact of a similar event?

With our climate in upheaval, many cities, organizations and businesses are talking about building resiliency into their operations, in order to allow them to better deal with extreme events such as heavy storms, droughts and floods. While these expenditures are often high, given today’s reality they are considered necessary — in keeping with Ben Franklin’s adage that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

While taking steps to improve the resiliency of, for example, a city’s electrical grid, won’t prevent the increasing number and intensity of storms from coming (only reducing our carbon emissions can do that), they can prevent the kind of system-wide damage that New York City and its residents suffered in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.

The grid’s 61 substations, 94,000 miles of underground cable and 34,000 miles of overhead cable are susceptible to damage and disruption caused by events ranging from tidal surges, flash floods, blizzards, droughts, high winds and heat waves, all of which are more likely to occur given the onset of global warming. Recommended actions fell into three categories: robustness and redundancy of equipment, keeping the demand from overwhelming supply, and enhanced coordination of resources through smart infrastructure.

Specific actions within the first category include: waterproof and flood proof switches and gear, coated wires and circuits, and more technical fixes like fuse-saving circuits and voltage/VAR controls. Demand management tools, which allow the utility to momentarily disconnect non-critical sources, can reduce overloading of circuits that could lead to failure. This capability is enhanced through the use of automation components such as intelligent feeders and relays, along with automated switches. Battery storage, which would include the incorporation of electric vehicle batteries through a V2G scheme, can also smooth out peaks and prevent the distribution system from becoming overdrawn.

A smarter grid, in which each part of the grid has knowledge of what is happening around it, can substantially help to fend off blackouts more effectively. This can be achieved with an advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), which includes smart meters and geographic information systems (GIS). Another device that has recently come on the scene is the synchrophasor, which can be used to monitor voltage, current and frequency at specific locations on the grid in real time. The system can then use this information to make adjustments that ensure uninterrupted operation. Think of those times when you’ve been at the beach and a big wave is coming your way. If your back is turned, it can knock you over or even hurt you. But if you see it coming, you can take a deep breath, brace yourself and perhaps duck under water, mitigating the impact of the force.

Distributed generation, where a diverse set of smaller-generation sources take the place of a single large-scale source, actually applies to all three categories. If a distributed source receives excessive demand, additional power can be dispatched to the area. If it fails, less people are impacted and other nearby sources can be diverted to take its place. Many of these capabilities are being combined into microgrids.

New York City has, in fact, started down this road. Just last month the city announced a $3.3 million investment to improve the resiliency of its electric delivery system through the use of microgrids. The money, which was awarded by the New York Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), will be used to fund a number of research projects, but the largest portion ($2 million) will go into a partnership between Con Edison, GE and Pareto Energy to demonstrate a non-synchronous microgrid solution based on Pareto’s GridLink technology. This technology, which will connect the Kings Plaza Shopping Mall in Brooklyn to ConEd’s electrical network, will use microgrid inverters to distribute the power going into the grid from various sources. This serves to insulate the grid from surges that could otherwise overwhelm the system. The company describes it as a plug and play “interconnect anywhere” solution.

New York also announced a $75 million DOE-funded smart grid and control center being administered through its independent system operator (NYISO). The project will utilize synchrophasors to reduce outages and improve efficiency.

This is an excellent example of a city being proactive and making the kind of investment that will prepare it for future weather-related challenges. These investments will also create jobs along the way and stimulate the local economy.

Image credit: “Power pole”. Licensed under GNU Free Documentation License 1.2 via Wikimedia Commons

RP Siegel, PE, is an author, inventor and consultant. He has written for numerous publications ranging from Huffington Post to Mechanical Engineering. He and Roger Saillant co-wrote the successful eco-thriller Vapor Trails. RP, who is a regular contributor to Triple Pundit and Justmeans, sees it as his mission to help articulate and clarify the problems and challenges confronting our planet at this time, as well as the steadily emerging list of proposed solutions. His uniquely combined engineering and humanities background help to bring both global perspective and analytical detail to bear on the questions at hand.

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RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, and engineering.com among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner of the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.Contact: bobolink52@gmail.com

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