When power fails

Microgrids limit the disruption caused by large-scale power outages

By Catherine Bischofberger

Power failure recovery is a key task for governments, hospitals and private businesses to get to grips with if they want to reduce the disruption caused by power outages resulting from natural disasters. Smart and microgrids are one of the solutions and the IEC is leading the way with the appropriate Standards.

NYC power outage in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy Blacked-out Lower Manhattan in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy

Extreme weather

The rate at which natural disasters strike different areas of our planet seems to be on the increase. Some of the worst catastrophes have occurred over the last 20 years. These include the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 which affected a number of countries in South East Asia, the Haiti earthquake of 2010 and hurricane Sandy which hit the North Eastern coast of the US in 2012. All three wreaked havoc, death and destruction and hugely disrupted the lives of millions of people. One of the results of such widespread disruption is large-scale and long-term power outages. These affect individual homes and businesses, of course, but even more crucially, hospitals and government bodies, hampering their efforts to bring help to the people who need it the most.

The IEC White Paper Microgrids for disaster preparedness and recovery reports that the Japanese 2011 Fukushima disaster, for instance, killed 15 000 people and destroyed four nuclear reactors, resulting in widespread blackouts which affected at least four million homes. The number and duration of power outages in the US is driven primarily by weather-related incidents. There are only three main US power grids, East, West and Texas, with a relatively low number of underground cables, making the country particularly vulnerable on the power supply front. Australia is in a similar situation.

Even though Europe fares better on the whole, it is still not immune to the increasing problem of extreme weather. Parts of Europe are powered by a synchronous grid, which supplies more than 400 million customers in 24 countries. According to figures published by the Council of European Energy Regulators, Germany, which has one of Europe’s most reliable grids, had 12 minutes and 42 seconds outage in 2015 due to disruptions caused by extreme weather, slightly up on the previous year.

One of the measures used to compare different countries is the System Average Interruption Duration Index (SAIDI). According to this benchmark, countries like Japan can have as little as six minutes outage over one year compared to more than 24 hours in Brazil, for instance. The figure is even higher in countries like Colombia or Bangladesh.

Japan bets on microgrids

Japan is an interesting case because it is regularly subjected to earthquakes and extreme weather situations but has one of the shortest outage times in the world. Even before the Fukushima disaster, the country had already invested in microgrid technology which helped it better deal with the huge challenges it faced in the wake of the earthquake and resulting tsunami.

In the aforementioned White Paper, the IEC looks at how Japanese infrastructure was affected and reacted during the 2011 disaster, focusing on data centres and medical facilities. The paper gives examples of how microgrid technology enabled some of the afflicted areas to continue to function. According to the IEC document, the Sendai microgrid, for instance, enabled the continued supply of services immediately after the earthquake, using energy from solar cells and storage batteries. Since the gas supply network in the city of Sendai was intact, the gas engine generators were soon able to restart after power failure at the utility grid and function as the main power supply of the microgrid. This ensured that patients in the hospital and in the medical and welfare buildings of the city survived.

Following the 2011 disaster, the country sped up its investment in microgrid and Smart Grid deployment. Japan’s ministry of Energy initiated a programme in 2014 to encourage microgrid development in the country. It makes funding available for independent demonstration projects such as electric vehicles for mobility and storage, Renewable Energy production and storage systems as well as energy efficiency optimization.

China sets smart goals

According to the United Nations, China is still the world’s most populous country, with 1,38 billion inhabitants although it is on the verge of being caught up by India, where numbers are rising fast. Chinese energy needs are enormous and the country is still the largest user and importer of coal. China aims to reduce its reliance on coal in an effort to reduce air pollution and become a more energy efficient economy. That means increasing the proportion of Renewable Energy and Smart Grid-supplied electricity. China is the world’s largest power generator in the world, as well as the largest electricity user and its electricity generation is controlled by state-owned holding companies, although there is limited foreign investment too.

The country is seeking to improve efficiency and facilitate investment in the power grid. A Smart Grid World Forum was held in China in 2011 and the country announced at that point that it would invest USD 250 billion in electric power upgrade over the next five years and another USD 240 billion between 2016 and 2020, including USD 45 billion in Smart Grid technologies. According to press reports, the Chinese view Smart Grid technology as the next industrial revolution and 15 pilot programmes have been initiated across the country. The same press reports indicate that China sees standardization as key in helping it address its domestic energy challenges but also as enabling it to take a critical step towards playing a larger role in global technology markets.

IEC Standards pave the way

Standards are crucial in helping such new disaster-resilient technologies become widespread. The IEC is doing pioneering work in the area of smart electricity, by adopting a systems-based approach, with Systems Committee (SyC) Smart Cities and SyC Smart Energy.

The core IEC Standards relevant to Smart Grid technology are IEC 61970, Energy management system application program interface (EMS-API), IEC 61850, Communication networks and systems for power utility automation, IEC 61968, Application integration at electric utilities - System interfaces for distribution management, IEC 62351, Power systems management and associated information exchange - Data and communications security, IEC 62056, Electricity metering data exchange - The DLMS/COSEM suite and IEC 61508, Functional safety of electrical/electronic/programmable electronic safety-related systems.

A number of committees are involved in Smart Grid technology including Project Committee (PC) 118: Smart Grid user interface or Technical Committee (TC) 57: Power systems management and associated information exchange. The IEC is also spearheading work on the Renewable Energy front under the aegis of TC 117: Solar thermal electric plants and TC 88: Wind energy generation systems.

power outage Massive power outages are often the result of natural disasters (Photo: Tyler White/The San Antonio Express-News via AP)
Hous destroyed in wake of Hurricane Sandy Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc in its wake (Photo: Ken Cedeno/Corbis)
NYC power outage in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy Blacked-out Lower Manhattan in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy