The Grid, Rewired

The biggest blackout in the recent history of the northeastern United States was triggered by a tree switch in northern Ohio.

On August 14, 2003, antiquated infrastructure, summer heat, and hundreds of thousands of blasting air conditioners created a perfect storm. Along the Northeast and parts of Canada, temperatures hovered between 80 and 93 degrees--above normal, according to the North American Electric Reliability Corporation. People guzzled electricity in their attempts to keep cool.

Power lines carried such tremendous amounts of energy that they actually sagged under the weight--a typical phenomenon in the world of utilities. That led to contact between a power line and an overgrown tree, culminating in a power trip--or flashover, in utility-speak. As alarm systems failed to signal the trip, several additional sagging lines came into contact with overgrown trees and tripped other power lines throughout the Cleveland-Akron area. All the while, utility companies FirstEnergy Corp., American Electric Power, and other regional power companies were left in the dark about the series of unfortunate events that threw the grid into chaos and ultimately sent outages cascading north, from Ohio to Ontario, and back out to seven other states in the Northeast, leaving 50 million people without power.

Even New York, the city that never sleeps, was blanketed in darkness.

"In less than five seconds, we went from normal operations to most of the state blacked out," Rick Gonzales, the New York electricity grid chief, told Reuters on the 10-year anniversary of the massive power outage. "Alarms were ringing and our computers started flashing red. We didn't know if we were getting bad information or if this was a true blackout."

All told, it took grid operators two days to fully restore power, while some parts of Ontario waited weeks.

Today, more than a decade later, much of the grid that supports electricity for huge swaths of the United States can still be taken down by a branch. But some of the country's smartest leaders have installed intelligent alternatives to power their cities and regions--restorations that often arrive in the form of lessons learned from natural disasters.

When a 6.0-magnitude earthquake, the strongest in 25 years, hit Northern California's Bay Area on August 24, 2014, PG&E successfully restored power to almost all 70,000 of its customers in Napa County within a single day. No stranger to fault lines and outages caused by California quakes, PG&E had invested in sophisticated software and advanced metering infrastructure, built to rely on 9 million smart meters installed over the past 10 years. The software enables them to model where faults and other problems are probable based on which customers are without power. The utility can then dispatch crews proactively, in some instances within minutes of the outage. As Robert Bea, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus in civic engineering told the San Francisco Chronicle's David R. Baker after the quake, "That's remarkable. That's a good time. For once, PG&E is due an accolade."

But natural disasters aren't the only challenges--or even the greatest ones--for modern grids. Ironically, the fluctuation of everyday weather, plus our appetite for renewable energy, is creating the greatest demand for intelligent systems.

"I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy." Thomas Edison...in 1931.

Solar installations started out as a viable solution to a global problem. The world needed an alternative to burning fossil fuels for power, and the sun was, until recently, a relatively untapped resource. Alternative energy solutions empower consumers to control their consumption and lower their individual carbon footprint, a feel-good benefit that gets us one step closer to solving climate change challenges. Solar penetration is increasing rapidly. In 2014, the U.S. installed 6,201 megawatts of new solar photovoltaic capacity--a 30% increase from 2013, according to GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association's recently released "U.S. Solar Market Insight 2014 Year in Review." If we consider wind, the American Wind Energy Association reports the total current U.S. installed capacity powers 18 million homes.

But on this march toward more responsible energy aimed at creating so many opportunities for consumers, there is a surprising catch.

As greater amounts of alternative energy join the grid, predictable peak times become less reliable. In the case of solar, consumers generate their own electricity when the sun is at its highest point. But oftentimes, when sunlight is at its most abundant, people are not necessarily using that power because they're not in their homes. So in some cases, solar power is being stored in battery packs for later consumption.

"This is what we call an intermittent source of electricity," says Sam Wilkinson, a research manager focused on photovoltaic systems and energy storage at IHS, a data and analytics provider of global market, industry, and technical information. "It's essentially increasing and decreasing very quickly as the sun goes in and out, and with weather conditions changing."

This phenomenon is known as intermittency. Utilities and grid operators must find ways to manage all of the alternative energy being loaded onto the grid by consumers who now have the flexibility to decide when and how to power their homes. In simple terms, excess power gets loaded back onto the grid.

"It's almost like you're putting a ton of pressure on the grid at once when you turn on all these little power plants," says Scott Graybeal, senior vice president of the energy segment at global manufacturing and supply-chain company Flex. "It used to be that electricity flowed one way, from point A to point B. Flow never went backwards."

Further complicating the challenge of the self-consumption model is the fact that it's highly dependent on weather conditions. Consumers still rely heavily on the grid to compensate when a storm fills the sky with clouds--or as in Europe's latest test of stability, when a solar eclipse on March 20th threatened to halt the continent's solar-power generation for its duration. Germany and Italy were particularly concerned about the potential disruptions.

They're kind of like traffic cops, and the traffic cop actually communicates with other little traffic cops. Sometimes they work harmoniously altogether, and sometimes they make individual decisions. - S. Graybeal

"When this pressure comes on, and it is a pressure wave, it causes instability in the grid," Graybeal says. "Specifically, it creates voltage instability."

Voltage instability is a fancy term for burnout--the unexpected fluctuations in voltage spikes or sudden dips. In other words, imagine how a sudden spike could trip the power at a hospital where life-support machines and other medical equipment are critical. Voltage instability adds to the vulnerabilities of the grid. Historically, it required buildings, like hospitals, to integrate their own voltage controls.

While the eclipse in Europe triggered a rapid dip and equally rapid spike--15 gigawatts, to be precise--within an hour, grid operators coordinated across the continent to respond to any sudden interruptions in service. Ultimately, they passed the test.

But when groundbreaking technology suddenly becomes cheap enough to drive the renewable energy device industry and if this happens without parallel attempts to optimize the grid, disruptions due to weather events or voltage instability could become more of a threat. Utilities and software makers are just beginning to figure this out, with new businesses springing up to offer things like energy storage systems, which eliminate the challenges of peak and off-peak demand on the grid.

"More and more electricity that we use is being generated by renewables, which are intermittent, and the price of batteries and the price of renewable technology have fallen," Wilkinson says. "We're just starting to see a lot more of a business case for storage.

Today, an estimated 85 million smart meters are connected to the electric grid in the U.S., according to IHS.

Smart meters live in people's homes. From there they monitor the grid independently and remotely, serving the main purpose of electro-mechanical meters but now with the capability to communicate power consumption to the utility. Smart meters are just the first of many intelligent technologies being integrated onto the grid. Providers of energy storage are starting to join in, too, along with makers of power electronics such as smart inverters or the automated substations that house them. As Graybeal points out, grid edge voltage regulators that live on electricity poles are novel--they can remotely detect and address voltage spikes and sags.

"They're kind of like traffic cops," Graybeal explains about the capacitive boxes, "and the traffic cop actually communicates with other little traffic cops. Sometimes they work harmoniously altogether, and sometimes they make individual decisions."

The goal for grid operators is to leverage these systems to augment a more stable grid and ensure consumers receive the highest quality of power possible.

These smart regulators are made up of existing technologies, like ethernet communication, that are only now being applied to the energy sector. The Raspberry Pi, for instance, is a credit-card-sized computer that is starting to present cost-effective applications for the grid as well as tremendous opportunity for the energy sector. But such technologies, coupled with alternative energy solutions for consumers, are causing grid operators to rethink their business models.

Despite the hurdles of these consumer-centric utility devices, integrating connectivity and intelligence creates opportunities for more flexible, adaptable control for leading solar system suppliers--just one solution for the growing challenges associated with distributed generation. Incorporating load controllers, automating substations, and deploying energy storage systems, like Flex customers RedFlow and Green Charge Networks, enable more efficient, intelligent, customer-centric energy models, an emergence that suggests a true shift from a centralized to a decentralized generation model, further proving the need for distribution automation. Green Charge's energy storage systems, for example, let consumers store excess power on-site rather than load it onto the grid. As a result, demand charges decrease as consumers manage their own power supplies. Knowing when to turn power on and off from the grid is what makes these storage systems, which are essentially smart batteries, truly intelligent.

These storage boxes know when to give back the power that was socked away. In other words, the consumer pulls and stores energy when it's cheapest, and then uses it when demand is most expensive from the utility.

As more consumers outfit their homes with smart systems, beyond the initial commitment to installing a smart meter—like those within the Nest connected home family, or Enphase Energy, a Flex customer that has developed a smart solar system and interface known as the Enphase Envoy, a device that informs consumers when their solar power needs to be turned on or off—traditional suppliers and operators will need to adapt quickly and efficiently.

For Flex, this shift is all too familiar. After fiber optics, wireless technology and mobile phones disrupted the telecom industry, Flex had to become the point of innovation for many product solutions and service providers that wanted to pivot their businesses. The energy industry will be no different.

The shift presents an unexpected opportunity for businesses across sectors. And as our appetite for more power runs up against the world's need to address global climate issues, intelligent energy and grid solutions will become the norm.

"Climate change is really truly at the core," Graybeal says. "Case in point, they're spending billions in Hong Kong because of rising sea levels. This concern is causing many countries to invest in solar and wind. But companies didn't anticipate that solar was going to grow as fast as it did."

If climate change and extreme weather conditions continue to be incentives for more intelligent, efficient energy-management solutions, a more resilient world will not only be a lofty expectation but also a mandate.

For five years in the '90s, Graybeal was a U.S. Naval officer in charge of a nuclear submarine's power plant, in which sailors were required to flip switches by hand. That manual technology from 20 years ago still powers some cities today, but Graybeal is one of those helping to foster a revolution in the way we manage power supplies. And it's driven by data.

"When I was on my submarine that's how most of our breakers worked. It was like the best of the 19th-century or early 20th-century technology," he says. "Now that you've got all these smart devices, the substation is making decisions all by itself using sophisticated algorithms. We're just in the beginning with this."