Catastrophe and Grid Resiliency

The devastating earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan offer horrifying visuals of a geologic worst case scenario.   It may also deliver a worst case disaster scenario for their national electrical system as some nuclear plants are beyond repair.  According to the Department of Energy’s global statistics,  in 2007 nuclear power accounted for only 11% of Japan’s national energy mix, but the loss of one, two or more of the nuclear generation plants will have profound impacts on their national economy and our global economy as well.  Japan ranks as the third largest consumer of electricity behind the USA and China, and approximately half of that is used by industry.  The regional utility, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) instituted rolling blackouts in its territory today to address a 25% shortfall in generation capacity.  However, it is unclear how fast new generation assets can be brought online, or how much the regional destruction will change the local needs for electricity.

Could a Smart Grid mitigate the effects of a similar disaster in this country?  The answer depends on the extent of damage and the recovery options.  Here in earthquake country, a seismic event of similar magnitude could damage generation, transmission and distribution (T&D) infrastructure.  A similar tsunami would also damage or destroy any grid infrastructure in its path.  Other regions of the USA may not fear the combination of earthquakes plus tsunamis, but could experience catastrophic events, including malicious cyber attacks that disable power plants and T&D network infrastructure for weeks or months at a time. 

Regardless of where you live, a glaring vulnerability of our current grid configuration is that we are all dependent on a relatively few centralized sources of generation.  Smart Grid technologies enable a very different network configuration that integrates distributed energy resources (DER) that include power generation and energy storage solutions.  DER options include microgrids that have their own generation assets (fossil fuel and renewables-based) and can disconnect from the larger grid; community aggregations of local renewable energy assets for local use; premise-based generation in the form of solar or wind; and a variety of short to long duration energy storage options.  DER deployments put power close to users and add much needed resiliency to the grid.  It spreads the risk of destruction or disability across a greater number of generation assets and eliminates transmission challenges.  Instead of one to many impacts seen in centralized generation configurations, a grid that integrates DER minimizes the number of users who have disruptions of power. 

 Smart Grid technologies like smart meters, coupled with Home Energy Management System (HEMS) solutions, can also help consumers participate in reducing their electricity consumption during periods of stress on the grid.  Aggregating voluntary reductions through Demand Response programs, Smart Grid technologies could help avoid or reduce the need for rolling blackouts like those planned in Japan. 

Smart Grid-enabled technologies won’t prevent catastrophic events, but they give us new resiliency options to mitigate the risks and reduce the impacts of disasters on the electrical grid.  Technology alone can’t fulfill these roles without new policies from regulators that encourage DER deployments and innovative thinking from utilities to embrace rather than resist these changes.  It would indeed be a sad worst case scenario if we have these solutions but fail to implement them.