• 6.2 million.  That's how many people were without power in Florida Sunday night, as Hurricane Irma made its way up the West Coast of the state.  Of that number, over half of residents, around 3.3 million, were customers of one utility, Florida Power and Light.  The number of customers without power jumped by more than 400,000 in 15 minutes between 9:30 p.m. and 9:45 p.m. Sunday.

    This massive jump in outages can be attributed to the consolidation of the grid.  Either the grid is fully functional and everyone is receiving power, or it is offline and nobody does.  The weakness of this model is inspiring research into alternatives, including the concept of "microgrids"; smaller distributed grids that function independently of the larger grid.  The benefit of utilizing these microgrids is that during emergencies like Hurricane Irma, the microgrids could remain functional while the larger grid is offline, which would reduce the number of overall outages.

     

  • While it is generally a novel concept, there are a few microgrids that currently exist.  Currently they are mostly run by local utilities, and they utilize renewable energy sources like wind energy and solar and distribute the power in small communities nearby.  In a Hurricane Irma situation, small community microgrids like this could provide precious power in times of massive outages, separated from the other 3.3 million that lose power in those times.  

    The potential for microgrids to help in times of emergency has been recognized by academia, and as a result is being extensively studied by Researchers at the University of California San Diego.  The researchers are developing algorithms that would enable homes with battery storage systems installed to be disconnected from the grid using remote controlled circuit breakers.  The algorithm would then determine the amount of energy storage available, as well as the amount of power each home requires, and then ration the energy accordingly.  It also taps weather forecasting tools to predict the amount of energy needed for temperature fluctuations.  

    While the optimal situation for a microgrid would be that every home in the community would have battery backup, the more viable situation is that each community will utilize one large battery that serves as the main distribution point.  This would still allow the community to separate itself from the larger grid during an outage, while still retaining a community of power, instead of individual homes retaining power and having to distribute amongst the community.

    The transition from macro to microgrid, which will obviously present large benefits, especially in times of disaster, is still a long way off.  Besides the research, the main obstacle to overcome will be government regulation.  The utility will obviously fight the movement towards micro grids as it will pull control of energy away from the larger companies.  All we can hope for is that in light of recent events, more people will open their eyes to the benefits of microgrids, especially in areas susceptible to natural disaster, like the Southeast.