US Ice Storm Underlines Need for Smarter Grid

December 27, 2013


Ice coats trees in Midland, Michigan. Tens of thousands of customers remain without power across the eastern US following a pre-Christmas ice storm.

I was fortunate to be living just north of the worst part of this storm, which I heard people describe in epic terms.
Folks are still shivering across the region, and dying from carbon monoxide fumes from generators.


“The system is pretty compromised out there,” she said. “We expect we will have more outages.”

In Michigan, where about half a million homes and businesses lost power at the peak of the weekend storm, an inch or so of snow was expected. Utilities there reported 101,000 customers without power Thursday morning and said it could be Saturday before all electricity is restored.

Tony Carone lost power in his Lapeer, Mich., home Sunday morning. The 52-year-old lineman for Detroit-based DTE knew there were long hours ahead.

“I was one of the casualties,” he said while taking a break from restoration work Thursday morning.

Maine reported more than 21,000 customers still out, down from a high of more than 106,000. There were more than 101,000 without power in three Canadian provinces, including 54,000 in the city of Toronto.

Montgomery was among a half-million utility customers – from Maine to Michigan and into Canada – who lost power in an ice storm last weekend that one utility called the worst during Christmas week in its history. Repair crews were working around the clock to restore service, and they reported good progress Wednesday morning despite more snow rolling into the Great Lakes and Upper Midwest overnight.

Authorities said the storm contributed to the deaths of 14 people across the region, including a 50-year-old man who was overcome by carbon monoxide fumes from a generator in Knox, Maine.

What this underlines once again, is the emerging technologies of distributed energy, energy storage, and electric vehicles are going to fundamentally change the equation for utilities and their customers. In an era where these events are becoming more common, and more severe, and when asymmetrical warfare and terrorism will be the primary security threats, a distributed electrical grid, where even homes and small business can be islandable, independent cells, makes sense.

The Toronto Star:

Why are doctors in our “modern” hospitals delivering babies by flashlight after their hospital’s power was knocked out by an ice storm? Partly, because we’ve ignored a critically important part of any modern health facility – its emergency power system.Most hospitals rely on diesel backup generators that can provide just enough juice to keep vital services and emergency lighting operational. But some, like Queensway-Carleton in Ottawa and the London Health Sciences Centre, have taken things to the next level by installing combined heat and power (CHP) systems. These mini power plants produce both electricity and heat and can keep hospitals, old-age homes, and other such institutions close to fully operational even during an extended blackout.

That’s because they not only provide more electricity than basic diesel generator systems, they also can provide the space heating and hot water needed to keep things habitable. And because these systems usually are powered by natural gas, which has a separate power system from our main electrical grid, they can operate as long as they are needed without running out of fuel.

Our neighbours in the U.S. learned this lesson in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, when institutions like Princeton University remained operational throughout thanks to CHP systems, while some New York hospitals had to scramble to evacuate patients in the dark when their backup generators failed.

The kind of weather we have seen this week in Southern Ontario is only going to become more frequent as the impacts of climate change begin to bite down. Meanwhile, in our biggest city – Toronto – only a tiny fraction of the power used in the city is actually produced within its borders. We need more locally generated power that can help us survive increasingly wild weather events.

It’s not just CHP systems that should be a much more common part of our urban fabric. Rooftop solar systems can also help to keep power flowing in local areas. We have acres of roof space in our cities that at the moment is mostly just collecting summer heat and, increasingly, winter ice. We need to accelerate our efforts to make sustainable zero emission solar energy a part of city living.

A climate-ready energy system does not rely on one or two humungous power plants to meet the needs of millions of people. It, instead, spreads power generation around to spread risk and reduce the need to move power over vulnerable wires. It produces power near to where it is needed – not hundreds of kilometres away. And it reduces our climate impact by improving the efficiency of our natural gas use (CHP) or by eliminating emissions altogether (solar).

With power lines sagging with ice all around our city, we are all the snap of one tree limb away from freezing in the dark (or climbing 20 flights of stairs in our condo building). It is time to rebuild our electricity system in a way that can better withstand the challenges to come.

As this realization sinks in, technologies like this one become more compelling.


Grid storage is a big problem for energy policy. For instance, consider a nuclear power plant, which creates power 24 hours a day, non-stop. All that energy has to go somewhere, yet our needs don’t stay the same throughout the day, or the week, or even the month. The grid has to be able to deliver the power needed at peak times (our max usage), but it’s wasteful to do that when notneeded. Everything from water tanks to huge spinning weights are used to store the extra power generated during off-peak times — but those are just old-tech ways of achieving what a battery does. So could we just use batteries?

With the widespread introduction of electric vehicles, we might just have an answer to that question. The problem with batteries is that they’re horribly inefficient and expensive relative to something simple like gravity or water pressure, and incapable of storing large enough volumes of energy. However, there are hundreds of millions of cars in the US — if we’re already making and connecting so many small energy storage units to the grid anyway, might as well make use of them, right?

Nissan has started looking into the viability of just that proposition. Assuming the continued expansion of electric into the vehicle space, we’ll have a sizable fraction of the grid available in the form of charging cars. With a smart system to make sure your vehicle always has a full charge waiting for you in the morning, the grid could use these batteries to store energy for use during peak times. If we can only generate, say, 90% of peak need, the rest might be able to come from the batteries, to be recharged after peak use has passed and we’re once again generating more power than needed.

In their Vehicle-to-Building program, Nissan hooked six Leaf electric cars to a system that controlled charging times. In peak summer times, the building used an average of 25.6 KW less power. That’s about 2.5% of peak use, and accounts for about $5000 per year in savings. That’s not a fortune, but the efficiency will only go up with time, as will the number of cars available to the charging timer. The Nissan Advanced Technology Center in Atsugi City has been using the system since July, and will continue to.

Located under the rear seat of every Toyota Prius is a 1.3kWh battery capable of providing hours of lighting in an emergency, if frugally applied. Cars like the Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt could run even longer or handle a even greater electrical loads with their 24kWh and 16kWh battery packs, respectively.

So, why aren’t Volt and Leaf and Prius owners in Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York plugging their cars into their homes in preparation for possible power outages in the eye of the storm? Simply put, carmakers aren’t yet offering that capability, at least not here in North America. In Japan, it’s another story.

In the wake of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, emergency personnel discovered that in the decimated prefectures, cars like the little Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric car proved invaluable in providing not only mobility but also, in effect, served as mobile battery banks for running communications and medical equipment. Counterintuitively, while drivers could find electric power to recharge their EVs, all of the gasoline stations were out of commission. The ability to respond in an emergency proved so valuable that Mitsubishi, Nissan, and Toyota are either offering options or are working on bringing them to the market that will allow their cars to provide emergency electric power to an owner’s home, or what is referred to as V2H. A new television commercial for the Nissan LEAF in Australia even touts the ability to soon ‘power your home’ with their electric car.

So, why aren’t they offering this capability here in America, and especially the Northeast, which has experienced more than its share of power outages over the last couple years?

Rocky Mountain Institute:

Many myths about renewable energy refuse to die. In a recent interview with Bloomberg News, Thomas Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research (a group backed by the fossil fuel industry), describes renewable energy as a pipe dream, saying that solar energy is “ineffective, expensive and unreliable.”

Naysayers are also quick to point out that the electricity grid is so complex that it cannot function without the base level of power that coal and nuclear power plants provide. However, microgrids like the one at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) that serve a specific geographic area and leverage customers’ ability to use power more intelligently, may be the ultimate solution that puts these myths to rest.

At a time when solar energy has grown exponentially, cut module costs fourfold in three years, and become cost-competitive in quite a few areas around the world, Pyle’s concern of effectiveness and expense is being flipped on its head. The remaining concern of reliability may soon be overcome, as well. The sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow, but microgrids can smooth out the variability of renewable energy generation—and they’re far more resilient than dependence on giant power stations whose failure loses a billion watts in milliseconds, often for weeks or months.

Microgrids are subsets of the greater grid and usually include their own generation (such as photovoltaics, wind turbines, and fuel cells), their own demand (lights, fans, televisions, computers, etc.) and often the ability to modulate it to match price and priority, and perhaps even storage capability (such as batteries or the distributed storage in electrified vehicles). What makes the microgrid unique is that it intelligently coordinates and balances all these technologies. When the microgrid detects a sudden drop in solar generation, it can ramp up a backup natural gas cogenerator or even temporarily and unobtrusively turn off noncritical air conditioners. If wind generation exceeds demand, the microgrid can signal the system and users to charge additional electric vehicles. This intricate dance among supply, demand, and storage can enable a cleaner and more resilient future.

Microgrids are already demonstrating their ability to manage variable generation. Microgrid projects from Korea to Denmark to California and Hawai‘i all carry the singular purpose of demonstrating the art of the possible. Denmark has been piloting a “cellular” grid structure—stress-tested annually by pulling microgrids’ plug from the main grid to make sure critical loads stay on (they do). Cuba used microgrids, distributed generation, and efficient use to cut its serious blackout days from 224 in 2005 to zero in 2007—and then sustain vital services in 2008 while two hurricanes in two weeks shredded the eastern grid.

The microgrid at UCSD has already proved that it strengthens the university’s — and the local grid’s — resilience. In 2009, when the rest of the utility grid was threatened by wildfires, UCSD was able to go from a 3 megawatt net importer to a 2 megawatt net exporter in 30 minutes by turning down its 4,000 non-critical thermostats by a few degrees while increasing onsite generation. UCSD’s actions played a critical role in keeping the whole area’s lights on.

3 Responses to “US Ice Storm Underlines Need for Smarter Grid”

  1. Peter – Thank you. Amen. You said it. In California and Germany solar will depress the daily electric demand curve. Then the evening peak will be steeper. It’s the so called duck graph caused by local solar reducing daytime demand.

    Click to access FlexibleResourcesHelpRenewables_FastFacts.pdf

    The solution, V2G and V2H. Daytime electricity rates will become like night time base load rates encouraging consumption. The scenario works like this. EV users arrive at work. EVs charge during the day. Since average commute is 25 miles or less, the one way trip home is even less. This leaves the EV battery 80% charged upon arrival at home. The EV then supplies power to the home first, grid second incentivized by peak rates. User cuts peak demand and utility bill, grid need not be expanded, no extra reserve generators or distribution. Win win for all. The government and utilities should incentivize V2H and V2G tech and use and the utility should participate and benefit. Business needs to be included in the plan and incentivized because chargers must be installed at businesses. It works because employees prefer business with chargers. V2G/H is in the home where it belongs. Stronger grid, local storage, individual participation and ownership. Reduced rates. Solar storage will be solved. If this gets started, nothing will stop it.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      It’s already begun.
      I will be conducting interviews with key people in the EV and related industries in the new year.

  2. […] 2013/12/27: PSinclair: US Ice Storm Underlines Need for Smarter Grid […]

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