2019 has already been a crazy year for weather. We’ve witnessed an explosion of extreme weather events across the country and around the globe, including a spike in tornado activity, record flooding, record snowpack, record ice melt, record cold and record heat.
Whether a heat wave on the West Coast, an ice storm in New York and Canada or a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico, extreme weather events offer evidence of the vulnerability of North America’s interconnected electric grid. Take PG&E’s decision to implement planned blackouts to avoid sparking wildfires following an apocalyptic 2018. Indeed, the decision by California’s largest utility’s plan to "de-energize" parts of the grid on high wind days will increasingly — including direct and fixed costs, property values and population — support the urgent need for building greater resilience into our electrical grid.
PG&E’s Planned Blackouts Across California
With California’s last two fire seasons being the worst on record (and PG&E’s electrical equipment being potentially responsible for much of the damage), the utility plans to power down parts of the grid whenever there's a high risk of wildfire. In fact, just last month, up to 22,000 customers in Butte, Napa, Solano, Yolo and Yuba counties were affected when the power company's Public Safety Power Shutoff program kicked in, cutting electricity over the weekend.
PG&E looks at red flag warnings and temperatures, along with humidity and wind factors, which are dynamic and can change instantly. But even this can be challenging: in spite of precautionary measures, a 2,200-acre fire erupted in Yolo County over the weekend of planned blackouts. PG&E spokespeople have confirmed these public safety power shutoffs could take place several times this coming fire season — each with their own opportunity cost.
While the plan may potentially solve one problem for PG&E, it creates another as these blackouts raise concerns about how widespread power shutdowns will affect the most vulnerable, including medically fragile individuals, hospitals, health clinics, schools, seniors who need air conditioning and small businesses.
And because the state’s energy system relies on power lines working together to provide electricity across cities, counties and regions, any of PG&E’s more than 5 million electric customers could have their power shut off. California’s grid is already overwhelmed by an ever-increasing demand for energy, and the situation is only made worse by older and temporary grid infrastructure as well as extreme heat conditions and other weather events.
Additional Recent Events
Even worse, weather-related blackouts are not specific to California — they are a global issue. Heavy rains are suspected to be the cause of a massive power outage that left tens of millions of people without electricity across all of Argentina and Uruguay and parts of Paraguay, Chile and southern Brazil. A band of heavy rain in the Houston area left more than 60,000 homes and businesses without power in April, and a widespread power outage in the heart of Manhattan left 73,000 customers without power earlier this month.
The “New Normal:” Storm Resilience
Resilience is defined as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties”. In our context, the concept refers to attributes of the infrastructure and operations that help utilities minimize or altogether avoid disruptions during and after extreme weather events. Significant storms can spur a nationwide focus on resiliency, but change is largely concentrated in local areas that experience the disaster. However, experts increasingly agree resilience is becoming much more important to year-round utility planning and operations.
In light of growing climate data and an increase in extreme events coming forward, the challenge for homeowners, residents, businesses, utilities and communities is building resilience and reliability. Even if we assume the climate issue is not expected to worsen in the coming years (it is), it’s painfully obvious the infrastructure and current solutions in place are not nearly as robust or scalable as we need them to be.
Emergency Energy Storage
Many energy storage devices and home battery systems are simply not affordable for the typical consumer. In fact, the average cost of a whole home battery system is about $16,400 with incentives. What’s needed to meet the grid challenges posed by climate change and to bring the cost of state-of-the-art cleantech solutions down is ongoing investment in cleantech innovation and cutting-edge companies urgently focused on developing solutions that address these concerns.
Unfortunately, despite all of the money being invested in startup companies in Silicon Valley and around the rest of the world, few venture capitalists have been willing to fund companies trying to address climate change — they’re more focused on the next big photo-sharing app or revolutionary blockchain platform. Firms and government entities tend to favor cleantech research over development, and unlike their software and hardware company counterparts, if you don’t have a real product, it can be tough to raise enough money to develop one.
There’s good news here, though, because we’re starting to see a much bigger push from utilities toward clean tech innovation because of the urgency from customers and regulators to address resiliency, reliability and recovery. Today, utilities are trying to figure out how to deploy distributed energy resources and energy storage solutions to provide temporary relief to customers, ensuring customers can power their essential devices during disastrous times. While these technologies might not power the whole home or every device in an office, they have the potential to better protect individual consumers, hospitals and government buildings, large employers and other vulnerable communities from devastation.
Additionally, some of these distributed and energy storage solutions are equipped with smart functionality that provides utilities and energy consumers with the knowledge they need to better manage their power or energy usage when the grid is failing or a storm is coming in, providing temporary relief — and peace of mind — through backup power.
As these planned blackouts and other unplanned outages become increasingly commonplace, the reality is that this is not just a bad year for weather or a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. These extreme events are happening with greater frequency and greater intensity across the country and around the planet — and we need to be prepared to accommodate the “new normal.”