Why resilience is resonating in grid modernization dialogues

Kathryn Cooper/GreenBiz
From left: Christopher Floro (Naval Facilities Engineering Command), Christy Riccardi (Department of Homeland Security) and Ron Cox (Hawaiian Electric).

It’s impossible and fiscally irresponsible to have discussions about future investments in grid infrastructure without considering their implications for regional resilience: the capability to withstand catastrophic weather or natural disasters without prolonged electricity outages.

That adage applies equally to both remote islands heavily reliant on offshore sources of fuel, such as Hawaii or Puerto Rico, and towns and cities on the mainland vulnerable to sea level rises or destructive winds, particularly coastal communities.

"Our existing system is highly vulnerable," acknowledged Hawaii Public Utility Commissioner Jay Griffin during a VERGE Hawaii session last week about the benefits of "electrifying everything," including transportation services and the heating and cooling loads of buildings.

The notion that solar plus storage technology plus intelligent local distribution services could short-circuit lengthy blackouts is appealing to many across the Hawaiian island archipelago, currently grappling with the system strain caused by unprecedented floods on Kauai and volcanic activity on the Big Island.

"The ability to fuel ourselves with electricity produced here — not just to have electricity but to fuel our transportation — that seems to me a much more resilient than the one we have today," Griffin said. Currently, renewable energy accounts for about one-quarter of Hawaii’s electricity generation. The island imports millions of gallons of oil annually, to fuel its power plants, despite its mandate to transition to 100 percent renewables by 2045.

The good news is that the trend toward commercial investments in distributed generating resources — including wind, solar, biomass and energy storage systems — aligns closely with that goal. The trick is to ensure that all the stakeholders across a region — including local utilities, government agencies, businesses and private citizens — are considered in the strategic plan, according to many experts speaking last week at VERGE Hawaii. 

Today, many relevant conversations about resilience happen in a vacuum, they noted. That is, they are confined to a single government agency or business. "We are planning specifically," said Kyle Datta, general partner of investment firm Ulupono Initiative.

Here’s why sharing information matters

Cross-agency and cross-sector conversations are important for identifying scenarios that might affect response times or the locations chosen for investments in microgrids and generating resources.

For example, in Honololu, there are about 20 water pumps used to manage the freshwater supply, but there currently is backup power in place for only seven. If some portion of the grid can’t be restored promptly, there could be a full-blown health crisis, Datta noted. Similarly, many electric utilities don’t spend enough time understanding the impact on telecommunications, he said. "What is the value of having an extra day of recovery?"

"Interdependencies are exacerbated, you start to see a cascading impact," said Christy Riccardi, regional director with the Department of Homeland Security, during a different VERGE Hawaii mainstage session. 

If a storm damages a port, for example, that would affect how quickly supplies can be delivered for repairs. The question then becomes: What supplies are needed for essential repairs?

Gathering this information becomes a matter of "letting down the guard, opening up the aperture," she said.

After Superstorm Sandy, agencies across New York, New Jersey and Connecticut became much more inclined to share information, said Sanjay Bose, vice president of central engineering for Con Edison. You could say that the design for the region has been supersized.

One feature, for example, are switches that can withstand being submerged in water — provided they’re not energized. "There is a combination of design and operational measures that comes into play," he said. 

ConEd’s plan starts with the future flood scenarios outlined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and then designs for another three foot, including one for the future impacts of climate change, Bose said. That blueprint will be reviewed every five years.

"It’s easy to criticize what’s there and why it failed," Bose said. "We have to continuously go back and look at our design standards, go back and assess and strengthen. If you do that, we have to convince regulators, customers and the company that it’s wise to invest in things that have a very low probability [of being used] but a very high impact."

The importance of maintaining transmission infrastructure — even through simple measures such as vegetation management — cannot be underestimated, said Ron Cox, senior vice president of operations for Hawaiian Electric Company. An estimated 75,000 to 80,000 individual generation resources are available in the Hawaiian system today. A top priority is deploying automation and telemetry technologies to help minimize and quarantine disruptions, Cox said.

Increasingly, that will come in the form of joint investments, such as the collaboration between Hawaiian Electric and the U.S. Army at the Schofield Barracks in Honolulu. The 50-megawatt plant uses a mixture of biofuels and other resources. It is grid-integrated, meaning it will serve the utility’s non-military customers, but it also can be isolated if necessary. It is located inland, where it is protected from the impact of storms or tsunamis, and it is automated with software that can help balance the intermittency of solar and wind resources.

“Secure and reliable access to power mitigates risk and allows the Army here in Hawaii to carry out critical missions and support surrounding communities," said Katherine Hammack, assistant secretary of the Army for Installations, Energy and Environment, when construction broke ground two years ago. "This proposed project is a key contributor to Army readiness and resiliency."

Similar arrangements in the name of resilience are being considered across the islands with both military and commercial partners.

“We’re planning in a little bit of different way than we have in the past as a response to what we see and what we’ve learned from Puerto Rico,” Cox said, referring to the U.S. territory’s catastrophic grid failure in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

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