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U.S. Hurricanes Point to Microgrids as Better Path to Reliable Power

United States Marine Core/Wikimedia Commons

With nearly seven million Floridians off the grid in the wake of Hurricane Irma, and many of them likely to wait weeks for power, microgrids are emerging as a consensus option for a region of the United States that is likely to see an increase in severe storms—even if the state’s governor is still “figuring out his feelings [1]” about the reality of human-caused climate change.

While Rick Scott dithers, the people who actual run his state’s electricity system are getting to work. “What we think we’ll see on the west coast [of Florida] is a wholesale rebuild of our electric grid,” Robert Gould, vice president of communications at Florida Power and Light, told ABC last week. And for Francis O’Sullivan, director of research at the MIT Energy Initiative, the effort to avoid future mass blackouts points directly to a more distributed utility system.

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Microgrids “take a different approach,” he explained. With generation and storage planned and located on a regional basis, what “will happen in an instance like a hurricane is that one region might get damaged, so the generation might be knocked out. That system is going to be able to break away from the others. And those other local systems are going to be able to continue to deliver service to their customers.”

Microgrid Knowledge points [3] to distributed generation as a solution the kind of heartbreaking moment that arose in City of Hollywood, FL, when eight residents of a retirement home died in the sweltering heat after the building lost power. “Other seniors are describing an inability to refrigerate insulin, recharge wheelchairs, plug in oxygen machines, or navigate flights of stairs without elevators—until the power is restored,” notes reporter Elisa Wood.

“A microgrid, which typically has multiple power sources, keeps the electricity flowing during an outage by disconnecting from the damaged grid and using its own onsite generators, and possibly batteries, to serve nearby customers,” she explains.

“Microgrids aren’t just convenient for extreme weather events,” added Justin Day, senior marketing program manager at Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories. “They’re critical.”

The discussion of how the grid should adapt and change is taking shape as U.S. utilities contemplate a rebuilt that is “likely to be one of the largest industry restoration efforts in U.S. history,” according to [4] the Edison Electric Institute trade association. While 50,000 utility workers from the U.S. and Canada were standing by to assist the states affected by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, they faced “the same downed trees, washed-out bridges and roads, and coastal storm surges and flooding that are preventing emergency responders from getting to the worst-hit areas,” Greentech Media reported September 11.

Some segments of the grid will “need to be rebuilt completely before power can be restored,” EEI noted. “This will delay restoration times, and customers should be prepared for the possibility of extended power outages.”