How we can prevent COVID-19 induced blackouts
In this second article of our series on the effects of coronavirus on the energy network, we explain how we CAN prevent potential blackouts in some parts of the US this summer.
In this series of articles, we explore the imminent issues the energy network is facing due to COVID-19, the immediate solutions, the long-term problem and the regulatory challenges ahead.
By Lawrence Orsini
PART 2: IT’S ALL ABOUT TIME
If America remains on lockdown this summer, unprecedented energy demand in some residential networks could lead to power blackouts that at best will be an inconvenience and at worst a very real danger life.
But there IS a way to reduce the impact: it requires operators to act fast and tap into the passionate community spirit that has grown in lockdown.
For years, through my involvement in energy efficiency innovation, I have worked directly with local communities. I have seen how they engage with energy issues and how increasing numbers of people are now interested in managing their energy use.
And nurturing and growing that interest to build new ‘local energy communities’ that can deliver demand response in peak times could not only stop a summer of blackouts – it could pave the way for the future.
In our last article, we explained in detail how suburban networks face the biggest danger. Their smaller wires and lower capacity grids cannot cope with such continued energy demands and in some places operators may have to step in and cut the power or face damage-induced outages.
An example of how this demand has grown was shown in a report from Pecan Street, taking historical usage for March within its research group of houses and comparing it to usage this year.
Moves have already been made to relax the regulations around power supply – openly acknowledging the challenges that lie ahead.
The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) controls the US energy networks and enforces strict minimum acceptable standards for the reliability, efficiency, safety and risk management of power operations.
The standards stipulate the ‘acceptable controlled actions’ that can be taken to balance the system.
These include public appeals, interruption of supply, voltage reductions (‘brownouts’) and rolling blackouts, which see power turned off in sections of the network for 20-30 minutes at a time, to give each sector a break.
In general, grid operators are expected to maintain networks to be capable of withstanding sudden disturbances (like short circuits) and to cope with scheduled and reasonably expected unscheduled outages.
But the radical shift in locational demand caused by coronavirus has moved the highest electricity demands from high capacity networks in the centre of big cities to low capacity networks in the suburbs.
The potential operational challenges this could cause led NERC to publish, on March 18, immediate changes to the way energy networks can operate.
The allowances, which currently run up to July 31 2020, permit non-compliance with certain operational elements. Notably, they state:
“The effects of the coronavirus will be considered an acceptable reason for case-by-case non-compliance with Reliability Standard requirements.”
Some networks, like those in New York and California, have already shown their vulnerability when demand suddenly grows. But as other networks heat up, this could happen in any and every city.
The biggest challenge will be the energy peaks. Across every network, there are hotspots at times of the day when usage goes up, and in networks with limited capacity it’s here where problems could occur.
If more houses had their own energy supplies, such as solar or battery storage, the challenges could be reduced. But it’s not possible to add new solar panels on rooftops in the time available, and quickly building battery storage units at the edge of the grid is not feasible either.
So, some operators may have to turn to rolling blackouts to keep the power on in these under-pressure networks.
And anyone who has experienced one will know it is disruptive, sometimes even dangerous
When the power goes out, you can no longer switch on the lights, you can’t cook, watch TV or use the internet; all the food in the freezer starts to defrost; and you can’t cool or heat your house.
State-run cooling centers – large air-conditioned rooms where people go to cool down – will not be running due to social distancing, so even more people will need to draw on their own home cooling solutions.
Then, with so many now working from home, any loss of electricity can result in a loss of productivity, resulting in a direct cost to businesses. And worse still, in some cases life-critical support could be left without power.
When power cuts hit California last year, there were reports of significant medical issues. The LA Times gave examples of ‘a mom who couldn’t refill her son’s medication for bipolar disorder’; ‘people on dialysis who had to travel to another town’; it even reported that ‘an elderly man died minutes after apparently losing power to his CPAP machine.’
DANGER OF DOWN TIME
Further still, if network operators don’t step in when they see an imminent problem, the challenge becomes a whole lot worse – because the effects of the virus are making it increasing hard to respond to infrastructure failures.
Operating in a pandemic typically involves managing with a much smaller workforce than normal and a threatened supply chain in which materials used for repair are much harder to get hold of.
The electric power industry in the US has been effective in operating during emergencies, such as storms or earthquakes. But nothing has reached this scale before.
Once a substation goes down, or a distribution wire melts, specialist personnel are required to fix it – and sickness or self-isolation could quickly cut staff numbers to breaking point.
In the UK last month, while residents were assured the National Grid is capable of coping with the changing network demands, they were also warned to prepare for blackouts due to reduced numbers of staff capable of fixing any emergency grid issues.
Keeping a limited pool of highly skilled workers available to operate control centers and generation facilities is a top priority in the US.
Control room operators and supervisors and reliability engineers are deemed mission essential – and where possible are being tested and quarantined alongside their co-workers if they have the virus.
In Austria, employees of one utility have agreed to live apart from their families in group isolation with colleagues for potentially weeks to ensure they stay virus free and can continue to operate the power networks.
UNDERSTANDING THE CONSEQUENCES
The alternative to all this is to create active local communities that are engaged and encouraged to provide demand response to keep their own power on in times of need.
And that could be VERY easy with our increasingly ‘virtually connected’ communities.
When people were warned that if they step out onto the street, they risk spreading coronavirus, most stopped going out onto the street. Most did not need to be told, they acted in response to the potential dangers.
In the same way, if people actually understood that by running their air conditioner to stay comfortable, they could be contributing to an energy peak that could result in a blackout that could endanger the lives of others, perhaps they might act in the same way.
Put simply, energy operators need to make people realize the consequences of their energy use and get them to spread that information to others.
Network operators could just ask people to stop using their electricity for certain non-essential functions at specific times when peak demand goes into the red.
But without consumers understanding what that means, or why they are being asked to do it, the mass response that is needed to achieve the required effect simply will not happen.
Instead, by connecting with local communities, building energy awareness and encouraging people to take action to help the grid at crucial times, local demand response could quickly become the “right thing” to do.
This technique is regularly practiced in everyday grid operations, it’s just normally done with heavy use industrial customers. If a network is heading towards overload, operators can use those customers as grid stabilizers and ask them to reduce their usage in return for a payment or a reduced rate.
COMMUNITY DRIVEN DEMAND RESPONSE
Instead, applying the same approach to residential properties in place of those industrial balancers seems a sensible solution.
It’s something, in the form of community powered local energy networks, that is already very much in the minds of the Department of Energy for the long-term evolution of our energy grids.
In future, local energy markets can put power in the hands of the consumer to create market-driven management of energy within communities.
Doing this will take demand response to a mass-participation level at a time a growth in renewable generation is increasing supply variability and mass electrification, most notably in EVs, is increasing demand.
High-tech, automated networks are not yet widely in place – nobody expected a pandemic such as this to accelerate the need for them as quickly as it has – but using social networking to encourage people to implement a manual demand response could just prevent energy blackouts.
And it will also open peoples’ minds to the fact that smart technology can help achieve reliable automation in home devices, to deliver a hands-off solution for demand response in the future.
Energy management is core to the fight against climate change, and while 7 out of 10 Americans believe global warming is happening, most do not understand how it impacts them or how to get involved.
The way we react to this coronavirus-induced challenge could be a pivotal moment in the future of energy.
If we can help consumers answer the questions “why do this” and “how does it affect me,” we are halfway there. And once the appetite is there, in the long term we can then give them the tools they need to participate.
The Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council (ESCC) is now holding high-level coordination calls twice a week with senior government leadership.
They need to have in mind at all times that prevention is always better than repair,and reducing use is always better than feeding demand. So applying a future ‘time of use’ logic and approach to this very present day problem could be an ideal way to mitigate the risks.
And by showing that it works, and that consumers themselves can benefit by managing networks more efficiently, it could just change the way people manage their energy forever.