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Could Transformer-level Batteries Shield the Grid from the Next Super Storm?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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This is a guest post by Robert Fares, a graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin researching the benefits of grid energy storage as part of Pecan Street Inc.’s ongoing smart grid demonstration project. Robert is contributing a series of guest posts discussing grid storage technologies, and how storage could benefit the electric grid. You can read the first and second posts in his series here and here.

During the last days of October 2012, what has become colloquially known as Super Storm Sandy plowed into the eastern United States. The storm was one of the most damaging in U.S. history, causing over 250 fatalities and more than $65 billion in damage. Our fragile electric grid exacerbated the impact of the storm.  High-speed winds tore down power lines and flooding damaged electric substations, causing power failures in seventeen states and leaving over one million electric customers without power.

New Jersey and New York were most affected. In New Jersey, over 500,000 PSE&G electric customers and over 400,000 Jersey Central Power & Light customers were without power for more than six days. In New York, over 280,000 Long Island Power Authority customers and over 185,000 Consolidated Edison customers were without electricity for the same period.

The present grid’s top-down architecture makes it especially vulnerable to storms. Even highly localized damage can affect electricity customers over an entire region. Dr. Alexis Kwasinski, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, studies how natural disasters affect power and communications systems. His analysis of hurricane Ike shows just how vulnerable the grid is to damage. Although most of the gulf coast region saw little damage from Ike, a vast swath of the region lost power for more than a week after the storm.

Although hurricane Ike did little damage to most of the power system infrastructure in Texas’ gulf coast region (left), some power outages far from the coast lasted more than two weeks (right).

In Union Beach, New Jersey, hurricane Sandy caused significant damage to homes, but left utility poles intact. Much of the grid’s infrastructure can endure a hurricane, but minor damage can cause lasting, widespread outages. (Photo credit: Alexis Kwasinski)

Despite its present limitations, the grid is showing signs of a transition to a more distributed and robust architecture. Rooftop solar generation in the United States has grown enormously since 2000. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Open PV Project tracks the installation of solar panels in the United States. Its Market Mapper shows the history of photovoltaic installs and prices for all 50 states. To date, more than 168,000 rooftop solar systems have been installed in the United States. The state rankings show that New Jersey and New York have the third and fourth highest number of solar installs, respectively. New Jersey has 7,602 systems installed with a total capacity of nearly 360 MW, and New York has 4,494 systems with a total capacity of 87 MW.

Did New Jersey and New York’s strides towards a distributed grid make a difference during Sandy? Unfortunately, no. Although rooftop solar survived the worst of Sandy, solar panels don’t work when the grid is down.  Without the rest of the grid, there is no power to back up deficits in solar production and nowhere to send excess solar power, so solar panels can’t provide safe, high quality electricity. Thus, IEEE Standard 1547 forces photovoltaic panels to totally disconnect during an outage.

Adding distributed battery systems to the grid could change this. A number of transformer-level battery systems will be installed in northeast Columbus, OH as part of American Electric Power’s gridSmart initiative. In addition to applications like load shifting and frequency regulation, American Electric Power’s “community energy storage” could work with rooftop photovoltaic panels to form microgrids during an electric outage. Transformer-level batteries would charge and discharge to instantaneously balance local solar power production with electric demand, so that intermittent solar generation could be turned into high quality power. Coupled with an energy management system, these isolated transformer-level microgrids could be controlled to power vital loads using available solar electricity indefinitely, or until the rest of the grid recovers.

With many utilities investing in incentives for rooftop solar generation, it would be mindful for them to weigh the costs and benefits of community energy storage. Community energy storage would increase the value of existing solar assets during an outage, and help utilities shift solar electricity production to when it is most needed. Especially in regions like New York and New Jersey, where they are already planning for the next major storm, community storage could work with existing, plentiful rooftop solar to make the grid more resilient, and lessen the impact of the next super storm.

Photo credit: The photos are provided courtesy of Dr. Alexis Kwasinksi, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. Learn more about his ongoing work at his research webpage.

Robert Fares is Ph.D. student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin. As part of Pecan Street Inc.’s ongoing smart grid demonstration project, Robert’s research looks at how energy storage models can be used with large-scale data and optimization for economic operational management of battery energy storage. Robert hopes to develop novel operational methods and business models that help to integrate distributed energy generation and energy storage technologies with restructured electricity markets and retail electric tariffs. Through his research, he hopes to demonstrate the marketability and technical compatibility of these new technologies.

David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. sethdayal 11:59 pm 01/2/2013

    Yup community energy storage great idea. Would add about a buck a kwh to the close to a buck a kwh cost of the solar.

    Link to this
  2. 2. tomgarven 12:13 am 01/3/2013

    Well this is certainly a well written article based on a lot of personal study and analysis of industry reports.

    I once worked in the utility industry in both tower and substation engineering and in an operating power plant. For the most part power plants are designed and constructed to continue operating in most storms. I should also note that high voltage transmission towers like those you see crossing the country are also hardened to withstand most storms.

    The weakest link in our electrical distribution system especially in the eastern part of the Atlantic states is the distribution system from local community substations out to the homes in the community. So why is this?

    There are several reasons. One is that high voltage transmission lines are normally higher than most storm debris thrown around by a storm. Also the larger high voltage switch yards and transfer switches are usually protected from storm debris.

    Where the system usually fails is from the community substation to residential homes. These homes usually receive their power by distribution systems using wooden poles. These poles are also frequently used in densely populated areas surrounded homes and by trees. During storms the trees fall and so do the power lines. In addition, the houses break apart during a storm and those pieces turn into flying projectiles that break poles and short out transformers.

    There are some things we can do going forward. We need to get serious about installing underground electrical services in highly populated areas. We need to think about providing water resistant membranes around subsurface transformers. We need to ensure that all local substations are at least protected by concrete water and projectile barriers.

    My last closing comment is not going to be well received by many people but some facts are hard to ignore. There are going to be more storm in the future and beach side communities are going to become either high priced ghost towns behind berms due to the rising water levels or abandoned due to cost. Maybe not this year or next but the water will come just as it did in New Orleans. Just returning things to the way they will will not prevent future recurrences.

    As noted above IEEE, NEMA and UL standards currently do not permit renewable energy systems to function when the grid is down. This is done to protect lineman working to repair the power lines. These codes and standards DO NOT however prevent homeowners from installing disconnect and/or transfer switches. In fact, natural gas generators are manufactured with automatic transfer switches built in. These inexpensive switches can also be used on renewable energy systems like wind turbines and solar power system. These systems can certainly provide much needed backup power while safely protecting utility workers.

    I consider my self lucky to be living in the desert Southwest. The highest desert shrub is about 6′ tall and well below any power line. The longest time period I can remember ever being without electrical power was once in the last 10 years ago and that was for about 5 minutes. If I lived in an area of the country prone to hurricane and tornadoes I would be getting my chain saw sharpened to remove that big old oak or maple tree running over the power lines in my backyard. Those trees will fall someday and believe me, you will be without power AGAIN for a few hours or maybe a few weeks. I love a nice green tree as much as the next person – but they do NOT belong next to a power pole.

    My heart goes out to the people suffering from Sandy. There are answers and actions that we can all take as preventive measures but they will not come cheap.

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  3. 3. priddseren 1:03 am 01/3/2013

    I am one of the people who does have solar on my rooftop, was really a waste of time for a few reasons. One is the goofy leases means any over production goes to the solar lease company at the end of a year, so I made sure my panels do not over produce. I tried to get them to lease me batteries and a natural gas generator as a package but for whatever political reason I must hook to the grid to lease solar panels(only a fool would buy these overly priced things). There are batteries out there that would allow for a combination of these panels(especially if I had more of them, a generator and batteries to both store every watt of solar for me to use and allow for me to always run the generator at optimum output because a batter would always be there to ensure excess energy is stored and used.

    BUT because I am forced to be connected to the grid, I get very little benefit. Sure it reduced my electric bill but that is only because of the outrageous and criminal 400% tax that California puts on the electric use I do have. The state politicians have even managed to come up with a scam to ensure the highest taxed tier always has half the KWH I pull off the grid. So even with the savings from over taxation, it ended up being only about half reduced.

    The author has a great idea just we dont need transformer scale batteries. We should be restructuring the power production to be mostly self produced on location with the grid connection being where excess power is sold if desired. This can already be done. Even a natural gas generator alone powering a house would be a huge savings in fuel use because the onsite generation with a battery would be very specific to the use of the location, effectively only running when needed and because no transformers are involved or transport across miles, no energy loss occurs which means less fuel used.

    It is also simply stupid for someone to have panels on the roof and no power if something happens to the grid.

    However, the biggest impediment to power production is everyone involved from the power generators, transmission line operators and the jackass politicians all want to skim money off the top for themselves using energy, which is probably the 4th most important human need after water, food and air.
    Get the political greed out of it, remove the regulation, remove the special protection power producers get to have government protected monopolies broken up and most importantly the government itself, such as California where it is illegal to purchase power outside of the state except through state, the laws written to require I hook to the grid, the taxes, the insane regulations and even the so called incentives like solar(all the solar company did was raise the price by the amount of the incentives)get all this political class and crony capitalist nonsense out of the way and let plain old capitalism take over and we will have the most efficient solutions possible to produce power with the best fuels, the best prices and probably mitigation for storms and other problems that can interrupt power delivery.

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  4. 4. jabailo 9:59 am 01/3/2013

    Fuel cells worked like a charm during Sandy.

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  5. 5. tomgarven 11:01 am 01/3/2013

    Yes they did and so did natural gas powered Combined Heat and Power [CHP] units.
    Of course we all saw the pictures of individuals standing in line for gasoline while the underground natural gas lines continued to function.
    I don’t live in the area where the hurricane hit. However, it would be nice to know how some of the neighborhoods with underground electrical services did during the storm. Does anyone have any data?

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  6. 6. tomgarven 11:08 am 01/3/2013

    to: priddseren
    In your posting you stated: “The state politicians have even managed to come up with a scam to ensure the highest taxed tier always has half the KWH I pull off the grid. So even with the savings from over taxation, it ended up being only about half reduced.”.

    Could you please clarify the above paragraph. Are you saying that you only receive only 1/2 of the solar system credit in tier 5?

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  7. 7. jerryd 8:16 pm 01/3/2013

    I think priddseren is not telling the truth, just making things up.

    Sethdayal care to give us the math on your strange way overpriced claims of PV and backup battery costs?

    I get them at under 10% of your claim at retail of under $2k/kw grid tied installed giving 1.8Mwhr/yr/kw using US average and about $.05/kwhr over it’s 20+ yr life. or my local battery supplier at $10/kw/yr or about $.04/kwhr.

    Link to this
  8. 8. Daniel Ferra 11:37 am 01/5/2013

    We don’t even take into account the tremendous health cost to us and our planet, when we burn oil, coal, and natural gas, which would make them more expensive than Solar or Wind. We need a National Feed in Tariff, for Solar and Wind, with laws that level the playing field, this petition starts with homeowners in California. Japan, Germany, and our state of Hawaii, will pay residents between 21- 54 cents per kilowatt hour, here in California they will pay us 5 cents per kilowatt hour, and they wont let us oversize our Solar systems, want to change our Feed in Tariff? Campaign to allow Californian residents to sell electricity obtained by renewable energy for a fair pro-business market price. Will you read, sign, and share this petition?

    Link to this
  9. 9. Daniel Ferra 11:40 am 01/5/2013

    The Feed in Tariff is a policy mechanism designed to accelerate investment in Renewable Energy, the California FiT allows eligible customers generators to enter into 10- 15- 20- year contracts with their utility company to sell the electricity produced by renewable energy, and guarantees that anyone who generates electricity from R E source, whether homeowner, small business, or large utility, is able to sell that electricity. It is mandated by the State to produce 33% R E by 2020.
    All major energy sources in America are subsidized, and have been for a long time, to automatically remove subsidies for Solar or Wind at this time is not benefiting us or our planet, with the worlds carbon levels at 390-410 parts per million and rising, globally emitting over 32 Gigatons of CO2 each year, We are buying and selling clean air, all inhaling life sustaining pollution free air.
    Accurate and honest accounting will have to be fought for, Solar does not get a fair shake on our current utility protocols because rules evolved for centralized large scale plants.
    Allowing homeowners to oversize their Solar systems, is a true capitalistic tool, that will give us the potential to challenge the utility monopolies, democratize energy generation and transform millions of homes and small business into energy generators, during Sandy Solar homes where not utilized to their full potential, because there was no transfer switch, to turn off incoming grid and start in home Solar power. how comforting it would be, to have mandatory transfer switches on all residential and small business renewable energy installations.

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