April 10, 2015 at 5:00 am ET
March 27: “A massive power cut caused chaos in and around the Dutch capital Amsterdam on Friday, including halting all flights at Schiphol International Airport before supplies were restored.”
March 31: “A nationwide blackout across Turkey has thrown the country into chaos.
And by now you know that on April 7, “Widespread power outages hit across Washington, D.C. …affecting government and privately-owned buildings and the city’s public transit rail system intermittently early in the afternoon.”
The White House, State Department, IRS, Smithsonian Museums, EPA, University of Maryland and even the Department of Energy were all affected, along with stations in the nation’s second largest urban rail system, the DC Metro.
Nearly 50 miles away in Maryland, a 230 kV transmission line became disconnected at an interconnect station, causing voltage to suddenly dip in many areas.
Officials, including those at the Department of Homeland Security, immediately nixed terrorism and cyber-attack as potential causes of the outage. But what if those had been the cause? The fact that these scenarios immediately leapt to mind highlights the frightening and fragile nature of our electrical system.
Extraordinary weather circumstances like high winds, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and even particularly hot days can cause an outage. But the day of the D.C. outage was unremarkable, with partly cloudy skies and highs in the 70s.
The D.C. outage highlights the downside to having nearly all centralized generation assets. A grid failure miles away from D.C. was able to shut down some of the nation’s most vital institutions. Accelerated investment in and implementation of distributed energy resources including solar, wind, combined heat and power, and energy storage systems have been recognized as a way to improve electrical reliability. More precisely, the combination of these resources into microgrids is a necessity for critical operations.
The DOE defines a microgrid as a group of interconnected loads and distributed energy resources within clearly defined electrical boundaries that acts as a single controllable entity with respect to the grid and that connects and disconnects from such grid to enable it to operate in both grid-connected or “island” mode.
The ability to operate a building or campus independently from the grid would have made April 7 in Washington, D.C. simply another spring Tuesday.
Theodore Roosevelt said a “reactionary” is someone who’s ready to take a progressive stance on an issue that’s already dead.
We are now trending towards reactionary behavior when it comes to our electrical systems. The arguments against microgrids are dying. Universities, building owners, and facility managers must work with to implement microgrids before it’s too late.
Ryan Franks is the Senior Program Manager of Connected Systems at the National Emergency Management Association.