The case for a distributed, smarter, cleaner power grid post Hurricane Sandy

Monday night as I was camped out in front of my Twitter feed — safe and dry in San Francisco — friends and family in New York started tweeting about power failures all over lower Manhattan. Their cell phones, running on batteries and tapping into their carrier’s high speed wireless networks — many that are backed up with diesel generators — were still up, even as the power grid went down across many parts of the East Coast.

As of Tuesday morning, around 7.5 million customers were without power across 15 states and Washington D.C. according to CNN. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Tuesday morning that he expects power to be out for the next two or three days in New York, “or maybe even longer than that,” and he also said that getting the power grid back up and running (along with getting the transit system online) will be the city’s “biggest challenges.” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo publicly told New York utility ConEd that its initial estimates of restoring power within two weeks were “unacceptable.”

The stark contrasts between the resiliency of our data communication networks and our power grid in these situations is unnerving. The power grid is highly vulnerable — it’s still largely a centralized system, with little energy storage capacity at the edges of the network, and it still lacks a lot of the intelligence that Internet architecture has that can deliver self-healing and re-route around damaged systems. And that’s a problem.

Electrical explosion

To witness just how vulnerable the power grid can be, watch this YouTube video:

CNN reports that the video is of a tranformer that blew in lower Manhattan Monday night. As Nicholas Abi-Samra, chair of the IEEE Power & Energy Society‚Äôs San Diego chapter, explained in an interview with IEEE about how utilities were preparing for Hurricane Sandy, there’s no way to completely protect the grid against extreme flooding, winds, rains, downed trees and flying debris. In particular, when a substation filled with transformers (like the one that blew last night in New York) is damaged, it can take months to fully repair it.

It’s the intelligence of a utility’s grid that matters in the wake of a disaster like Hurricane Sandy — how quickly can they identify outages and how quickly can they repair them? For many utilities in the U.S., the process of identifying who has lost power and where is only partly automated. Until very recently, the standard way of finding grid outages was by getting a phone call from the customer saying their power was out.

Some utilities are starting to employ smart grid technologies that can help more quickly automate the process of healing the grid. For example, SmartGridNews points out that Chattanooga, Tennessee-based utility EPB has started installing a self-healing grid that can cut the length of power outages by 40 percent. Long Island Power Authority was also in the process of installing a new outage detection computer system, but given it won’t be working until next year; little good it did them through Hurricane Sandy.

The underlying architecture

But beyond adding computing capacity and smart software to the power grid to make it smarter, the internet is more resilient than the power grid by its very nature.

The power grid has traditionally been built so that utilities have to balance demand for energy (buildings and industry consuming energy) and the supply (centralized power plants burning mostly fossil fuels to produce electricity) at all times. When there are large fluctuations in demand or supply, created by things like a power plant shutting down or a transformer blowing, the cascading effect can bring down whole chunks of the network.

The internet doesn’t work that way. When data centers, servers and network devices fail, oftentimes web sites and service providers can shift traffic to other data centers and servers or route traffic to network gear that isn’t suffering from problems. If there’s heavy traffic, service providers can rapidly ramp up and down capacity through services like Akamai’s CDN. Data network outages can also usually be discovered immediately and most often times resolved shortly — hours in the most extreme cases (some of the outages at Amazon’s Web Services have been the exception).

The internet is a distributed system. It was designed that way (by DARPA) at its core to be resilient to attack. The power grid is not (yet) distributed. When the power grid has a massive spike in energy consumption (like during a hot summer afternoon), the network can potentially go down if it’s not quickly matched by expensive (and dirty) backup power generation from peaker power plants.

Energy storage

It should be noted that it’s easier and cheaper to move bits than electrons — it’s more an analogy for how a network should be designed. To make the power grid more resilient, smarter and more distributed, it will require a massive investment in power generation, transmission, distribution, smart grid software and energy storage.

A truly de-centralized power grid would require local power generation through solar panels or other means like fuel cells, microgrids that can isolate a neighborhood in the event of disasters, and energy storage systems (like batteries) that can bank power for buildings. Critical systems and buildings like data centers and hospitals have emergency backup power (when it works), mostly from diesel-power generators, but these are inefficient, dirty, costly and not widely used (or needed) by much of the population with reliable grid power.

It’s not as weird as it sounds to move to a more distributed power grid. Large companies in India are so used to rolling blackouts there that many of the largest have their own storage and backup systems and the biggest weren’t effected by the massive blackouts in India earlier this year. Solar panels are also cheaper than they have ever been, and are being installed on the roofs of U.S. homes and businesses at a rapid rate. Of course, solar panels won’t help in a nighttime storm, but if they’re matched with energy storage, they can bank daytime power for the nighttime critical use.

STILL, distributed power systems and energy storage units need to be far cheaper for this decentralized power grid to actually be viable. When fuel cell maker Bloom Energy launched years ago it painted the picture of a Bloom box in every home providing a mini power plant to all homes and businesses — but that’s a distant dream until the price of its fuel cells drops dramatically.

Clean power

There’s also another part of the story of the power grid and Hurricane Sandy. And that’s the need for a transformation of the grid to next-generation

Aerial view of Apple’s solar farm

energy technologies, like adding in more carbon emissions-free power generation and energy efficiency technologies. Leaders like Governor Cuomo are already describing Hurricane Sandy as an example of a new era of extreme weather, without even mentioning the politicized word climate change.

Cuomo said:

“There has been a series of extreme weather incidents. That is not a political statement. That is a factual statement. Anyone who says there’s not a dramatic change in weather patterns, I think is denying reality.”

Whatever combination is leading to more extreme weather (Mother Jones has a good take on the Sandy climate change argument), reducing the world’s carbon emissions is widely believed by scientists as something that can help address the problems of climate change. That means developing and deploying next-generation energy technologies that reduce energy consumption overall, and deliver low cost and viable clean power.

Even if you’re still not convinced about climate change, it’s actually an argument about infrastructure. The power grid needs a massive investment — at even a greater degree to the investment that’s been made in Internet infrastructure — to make it a more modern, digital, and resilient network. And hopefully, a cleaner network, too.

Image courtesy of NCDOTcommunications, and NASA.