Recovery efforts from hurricanes Harvey and Irma have focused on restoring power to millions of customers as quickly as possible, not on sparking a sea change in the way electricity is produced and distributed in the U.S. However, the Energy Department has fostered a long-term initiative to develop a more resilient, reliable grid. It just pumped $32 million into a nationwide network of projects aimed at that goal. Not surprisingly, the seven projects share a common strategy that leans heavily on microgrids powered in-part by solar energy and other distributed renewables.
For businesses at risk of long-term power outages associated with violent weather, the focus on resiliency is welcome news.
Despite coal rhetoric, Trump administration focuses on the modern grid — and renewables
The disastrous 2017 hurricane season provides clear and tragic evidence that the U.S. electricity grid is not equipped to handle the long-term impacts of climate change, including rising sea levels and an increase in extreme weather events.
Grid reliability has long been an ongoing concern for U.S. energy planners, but until recent years, stability efforts focused on conventional models of centralized electricity production.
The focus switched to modernizing the grid with distributed energy production and microgrids under the Obama administration, as former President Obama’s promotion of renewables and energy storage technology opened up a whole new range of pathways toward resiliency.
The U.S. Department of Defense has been an early adopter of the microgrid + renewables + storage strategy. That includes ensuring reliable, moveable power for U.S. fighting forces overseas as well as hardening domestic bases against energy supply disruptions.
The platform for the Energy Department’s grid resiliency efforts is the Grid Modernization Initiative, a sprawling endeavor that includes academic research centers, utilities and other private sector partners and numerous public sector partners.
Despite a recent new “grid study” that was purported to favor the coal industry, the Energy Department has been forging ahead with the Grid Modernization Initiative (for the record, the “grid study” ended up suggesting that coal cannot survive in today’s power generation market unless federal lawmakers provide it with more taxpayer subsidies).
The Energy Department is also bringing SunShot, another major Obama-era initiative, into the grid resiliency effort. The original SunShot goal was to reduce the cost of solar power to parity with fossil fuels by 2020. Last week the Energy Department announced that the SunShot goal was well in hand (and already met three years ahead of schedule, for utility-scale solar), and that the program is pivoting to a 2030 goal that includes a greater commitment to grid resiliency.
$32 Million for the resilient grid of the future
Keeping in mind all of the above, plus the national defense and homeland security angles, let’s take a look at those seven grid resiliency projects.
The awards represent the second round of funding through the Grid Modernization Initiative. Energy Secretary Rick Perry put the program into perspective when he announced the seven projects last week:
“A resilient, reliable, and secure power grid is essential to the nation’s security, economy, and the vital services that Americans depend on every day. As round-the-clock efforts continue to help communities recover from the devastation of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the need to continue strengthening and improving our electricity delivery system to withstand and recover from disruptions has become even more compelling…”
The announcement also made it clear that centralized coal power plants are toast:
The seven Resilient Distribution Systems projects were awarded to DOE’s Grid Modernization Laboratory Consortium (GMLC), which will develop and validate innovative approaches to enhance the resilience of distribution systems, including microgrids, with high levels of clean, distributed energy resources and emerging grid technologies at regional scale…
Unfortunately for wind and solar fans, when the Energy Department uses the word “clean,” it doesn’t necessarily mean renewable. Fossil natural gas and small scale modular nuclear power plants could also be in the mix.
Nevertheless, as a group the awardees are carving a path that helps speed up the transition to a more sustainable energy future. These include:
GRIP — The Grid Resilience and Intelligence Platform will deploy advanced analytics to shepherd distributed renewables through grid disruptions.
RADIANCE — The Resilient Alaskan Distribution System Improvements using Automation, Network Analysis, Control, and Energy Storage focuses on a “zonal” approach that networks microgrids while reducing the chance of widespread outages from cyber threats or extreme weather.
OpenFMB is an open-source specifications platform for power systems, which will be leveraged to improve resiliency through a flexible combination of conventional power sources and distributed renewable energy.
HEMS — Home Energy Management Systems will leverage new “smart grid” technology to enable interactive energy management down to the granular level of individual households:
CleanStart-DERMS — This one is especially interesting in terms of the potential to leverage distributed energy resources (DER) for storm recovery.
The objective of this project is to validate and demonstrate at scale a DER-driven mitigation, blackstart and restoration strategy for distribution feeders with integration of applied robust control, communications and analytics layer, and coordinated hierarchical solution.
Resilient Distribution Systems addresses pathways to improving integrated energy resource planning, partly through energy storage and regional partnerships.
As for how all these pieces will fit together, the seventh award goes to a “Laboratory Valuation Analysis Team” that provides for consistency and information sharing among the six other projects, with the aim of synthesizing them into a more holistic plan for the modern grid.
Image: Map of research locations for $32 million grid resiliency funding round via US DOE.