When the Reason for Microgrids Comes in a Flash

Feb. 13, 2019
When it comes to electrical grids, even the best of them fail, sometimes leaving prisons, airports and other important facilities in the dark, as we’ve seen too much recently. It’s a reason for microgrids, more of them, quicker. Oh and then there are the aliens…

Sometimes the reason for microgrids is so obvious it comes like a big blue flash in the sky.

Such was the case in late December when Consolidated Edison’s system malfunctioned causing a gas flare that had some New Yorkers looking to the skies and wondering if space aliens had come to Queens. It took an announcement by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to straighten things out.

So the good news, no aliens were involved. The bad news? Important facilities in New York City lost power. Using microgrids as a backup plan could have reduced the impact, according to Chris Evanich, manager of microgrid business development for S&C Electric.

What’s the first step to avoid such disasters? Prevent the outage from occurring, he said in a recent interview with Microgrid Knowledge.

ConEdison says the flare was caused by failure of a coupling capacitor potential device. Sometimes electrical systems fail from wear and tear caused by repeated surges related to reclosers — equipment that detects and minimizes faults in the transmission and distribution. New technologies, like pulse closers, can minimize this kind of system strain.

Even the best grids can fail

This is to not say Con Edison has a rickety electrical system. To the contrary, it is considered highly reliable. It experiences outages less frequently than other New York utilities according to a five-year comparison published by the state Department of Public Service in June. After Superstorm Sandy, Con Edison put $1 billion into equipment fortification and won the PA Consulting’s 2018 ReliabilityOne Award for Outstanding Reliability Performance in the Northeast Region.

But when it comes to electrical grids, even the best of them fail — and in a place like New York City, outages can be consequential. Following the flare, important facilities lost power, among them, the Rikers Island detention center. The facility’s steam production system was affected resulting in a loss of heat and hot water in some buildings. At LaGuardia Airport flights were halted for about 45 minutes and service was disrupted on a subway line.

So if even the best grids fail, what’s the second line of defense? That’s where the microgrid comes into play, said Evanich. Microgrids are characterized by their ability to island from a troubled grid and serve their customers with on-site generators. So while their neighbors are in the dark, microgrid-fed customers still have electricity.

Join microgrid industry leaders at Microgrid 2019: Shaping the New Electric Grid, May 14-16 in San Diego, Calif.

Some, like Ameren’s microgrid in Illinois, increase reliability further by employing multiple forms of generation and energy storage within their footprint. Others are looking at pairing or clustering microgrids to supercharge reliability – an approach being explored by Oncor in Texas. Densely populated New York City might benefit from the Oncor approach, Evanich said. Multiple microgrids could work together in essense talking to each other to ensure best performance for customers.

But it’s one thing for the microgrid developers to demonstrate the technology’s know-how; it’s another to get the slow-moving power industry to revamp.

One of the biggest hurdles to upgrading the grid with microgrids is the attitude, “We’ve always done it this way,” Evanich said. But he added, “The extremes in weather are disrupting the comfort in our lives. As our world continues to evolve we are faced with new challenges, and we need a new approach to meet our energy needs.”

Even in New York, where the state government has been trying to bolster microgrid development, holes still exist in the system that microgrids could fill, places where reliability is paramount.

Indeed, following the Queens flare, Cuomo saw another prison go dark, the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. Cuomo has been tussling with the federal government, which runs the prison, over the outage. More than a thousand prisoners reportedly went without heat, hot water or electricity for several days during subzero temperatures.

Separately, Cuomo also reported having talks with the Port Authority to improve LaGuardia Airport’s back-up power supply. Several airports are now developing microgrids, including New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. This follows the 11-hour outage last year at the world’s busiest airport, Georgia’s Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport

Chris Evanich, manager of microgrids, S&C Electric

Microgrid growth too slow, power outages too many

That’s not to say microgrids aren’t being installed. The industry is growing, and an increasing number of utilities that S&C talks to say they are looking at ways to make microgrid installation a priority, Evanich said.

But it’s not happening fast enough. The power outages — a big reason for microgrids — keep coming.

January brought the Polar Vortex and record cold weather, leaving thousands without power in Wisconsin and Michigan. About the same time, wind in Virginia also left people in the dark. Parts of the Midwest experienced natural gas interruptions which left consumers without heat in double digit below zero cold. In southern hemisphere, record high temperatures left tens of thousands were left without power in Sydney, Australia.

And as this article was being written, winter storms had knocked out power to 100,000 electric customers in the Northwest, 42,000 in Michigan, 25,000 in Indiana and 27,000 in Ohio, according to poweroutages.us. Weather reporters were warning the storm may cause outages in the Northeast as well.

And this is all due just to bad weather. Who knows what will happen if the aliens ever really do land in Queens.

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About the Author

Elisa Wood | Editor-in-Chief

Elisa Wood is an award-winning writer and editor who specializes in the energy industry. She is chief editor and co-founder of Microgrid Knowledge and serves as co-host of the publication’s popular conference series. She also co-founded RealEnergyWriters.com, where she continues to lead a team of energy writers who produce content for energy companies and advocacy organizations.

She has been writing about energy for more than two decades and is published widely. Her work can be found in prominent energy business journals as well as mainstream publications. She has been quoted by NPR, the Wall Street Journal and other notable media outlets.

“For an especially readable voice in the industry, the most consistent interpreter across these years has been the energy journalist Elisa Wood, whose Microgrid Knowledge (and conference) has aggregated more stories better than any other feed of its time,” wrote Malcolm McCullough, in the book, Downtime on the Microgrid, published by MIT Press in 2020.

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