How to Keep the Lights on after a Superstorm

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A planned micro grid in a New Jersey city could be a model for making local communities more resilient to extreme weather.

For five days after Hurricane Sandy hit on October 29, 2012, large swathes of Hoboken, N.J., remained underwater and in darkness. The small city covering five square kilometers hosts three substations for the regional electric grid, all of which were knocked out of service by flooding. Some residents had no electricity for as long as 15 days after the storm.
 
As Mayor Dawn Zimmer walked around her municipality surveying the damage, she vowed to come up with a backup plan to keep the lights on in a catastrophe. When federal government officials flooded in to tour the damage, Zimmer asked them to help her find a way to have at least a minimal amount of power remain on during storms, no matter what. As a result, she is now working with Sandia National Laboratories, local utility Public Service Electric & Gas Co., the Board of Public Utilities and renewable energy consultant Greener by Design to come up with a plan to put Hoboken, or at least a part of it, on its own power grid. Hoboken needs to be self-sustaining during a storm, Zimmer says, because whether it's stubbornness or lack of resources, people simply don't evacuate. "I thought if we had a safer, better system of sheltering in place, people could stay in their homes through the storm," Zimmer explains.
 
Based on work Sandia has done for military bases, the planned microgrid will be one of the largest and most complex in the country and will serve as a possible model for other cities. "Military bases have to have power regardless of what happens around them," says Robert Hwang, director of Sandia's Transportation Energy Center, which is the lead department for this project. "We developed this design technology to meet that need."
 
Inside the micro grid
Any small-scale localized area with its own power generation and users of electricity qualifies as a micro grid (think: energy island). Such a micro grid is a small-scale version of the regular electric grid and can run independently or in conjunction with it. It’s considered more reliable than a conventional grid because its wires are often underground, it has multiple sources of power generation and its power is generated and distributed locally. A conventional electric grid, by contrast, uses overhead wires and has fewer, but bigger sources of power generation. If one goes out, large portions of the grid lose power. For a micro grid, think of Christmas lights: it used to be that if one bulb went out, the whole string went out. But manufacturers started to localize or segment the way the lights were wired, so that if one bulb went out, only that section of the string went out. The rest of the string would remain on. A micro grid can also achieve specific goals, like having a diverse array of energy sources and lowering electricity costs because the grid can produce its own power during peak hours on the regular grid, when electricity costs are usually high.
 
The micro grid itself will only be activated during times of peak usage on PSE&G's grid—because it will likely be cheaper for Hoboken to make its own power at those times—or when PSE&G's grid is down, either due to repairs or mishaps, such as extreme weather events. An operator must manually turn on or engage the grid, although it can be done remotely, even from a computer. Once the grid is on, it is designed to be able to run continuously for seven days.
 
The blueprint for the new micro grid spells out the sources of electricity generation, where the wires should go and lists about 100 potential buildings to be wired together. The list includes city hall, buildings that house emergency services like police and fire, hospitals, senior housing facilities, the Stevens Institute of Technology, tall buildings with elevators, a grocery store or two, and possibly some hotels and restaurants.
 
A draft report suggests powering this micro grid with solar panels, wind turbines and fuel cells—which are like large batteries that convert hydrogen and oxygen into water, and in the process produce electricity. The grid would also use generators fired by fossil fuels, such as combustion engines. Hoboken may also recover some of the heat thrown off by those generators and put it to other uses, such as heating buildings or driving a steam turbine to produce yet more electricity—an approach known as combined heat and power, or CHP.
 
Profit center, too
Hoboken will likely run its CHP generators and solar panels most often during peak prices. "We will run it on days when electricity is more expensive to buy than it is to produce," says Adam Zellner, founder of Greener by Design, a renewable-energy consultancy, who was a member of former Gov. Jon Corzine's energy policy team. "If we can make energy for seven cents and PSE&G's grid charges nine, we should turn on our grid."

Written By: Caren Chesler
continue to source article at scientificamerican.com

3 COMMENTS

  1. A draft report suggests powering this micro grid with solar panels, wind turbines and fuel cells—which are like large batteries that convert hydrogen and oxygen into water, and in the process produce electricity. The grid would also use generators fired by fossil fuels, such as combustion engines.

    Any small-scale localized area with its own power generation and users of electricity qualifies as a micro grid (think: energy island). Such a micro grid is a small-scale version of the regular electric grid and can run independently or in conjunction with it.

    This nearby project comes to mind when thinking of local electrical generation, but does not seem to have been mentioned in the OP.

    http://energy.gov/articles/turbines-nyc-east-river-will-provide-power-9500-residents

    As part of the Roosevelt Island Tidal Energy project, 30 turbines are being installed along the strait that connects the Long Island Sound with the Atlantic Ocean in the New York Harbor. The project, led by Verdant Power, Inc., is the first ever commercially licensed tidal energy project in the United States.

    The turbines are scheduled to be fully installed by 2015 and will use the flow of the river and tides to generate 1,050 kilowatts of electricity — this power will be delivered to 9,500 New York residents.

    http://www1.umn.edu/news/news-releases/2013/UR-CONTENT-455136.html

    University of Minnesota and Verdant Power to lead new effort that advances research, innovation and training.

    Developed around the nation’s first federally licensed installation of a commercial tidal power turbine system array—the Roosevelt Island Tidal Energy(RITE) Project in New York City’s East River—the effort combines the University of Minnesota St. Anthony Falls Laboratory’s cutting-edge computational modeling and experimental techniques with the industry expertise and unique field facilities of RITE Project lead, Verdant Power, Inc. (New York, NY), and the materials science and manufacturing strengths of Energetx Composites, Inc. (Holland, MI). The project is funded by a two-year, $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, through its Partnerships for Innovation: Building Innovation Capacity program.

    • In reply to #1 by Alan4discussion:

      A draft report suggests powering this micro grid with solar panels, wind turbines and fuel cells—which are like large batteries that convert hydrogen and oxygen into water, and in the process produce electricity. The grid would also use generators fired by fossil fuels, such as combustion engines….

      Hi Alan4discussion,
      Seems to me as we transition away from fossil fuels these will be necessary anyway. Electrics cars as they come on stream will provide a substantial battery capacity across the grid to even out solar, wind power etc. As they are parked most of the time they can have a percentage of their capacity for the time they are idle to even out the grid. Can’t come soon enough.

  2. One of the key issues in coping with super-storms is having accurate information in time to take preparatory action to storm-proof facilities as far as is possible. – Shutting down systems which are likely to become dangerous or escalate problems, and of course evacuating vulnerable areas.

    To achieve this, these sorts of information systems are required:-

    Airbus to build critical European weather satellites – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-26962805

    The competition to build Europe’s next generation of polar-orbiting weather satellites has been won by Airbus.

    The big aerospace concern was declared the winner at the latest meeting of the European Space Agency’s (Esa) Industrial Policy Committee (IPC).

    A contract valued in the hundreds of millions of euros will be signed by Esa and Airbus in due course.

    The existing Metop series, as it is known, has a profound impact on the quality of weather forecasting.

    The satellites’ sensors gather profiles of atmospheric conditions, layer by layer.

    Studies comparing all the different types of meteorological observations (including surface weather stations, balloons and aeroplanes, etc) have found Metop data to have the biggest single contribution to the accuracy of the 24-hour look ahead, at around 25%.

    The improved forecasts of storms and other extreme events are estimated to be worth billions of euros annually in terms of lives saved and property damage avoided.

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