Hurricanes Harvey and Irma Highlight the Urgent Need for NWAs

As Harvey’s toll on Texas towns continues to reverberate across the nation, the heart-breaking stories of lives lost, whole cities submerged, and the immeasurable impact the devastation has wrought is a painful reminder of human helplessness in the face of extreme weather events. The New York Times’ prediction that Hurricane Harvey’s description as a “500-year flood” maybe misleading, since a similar storm might not be far off. In fact, for Floridians who have been hard hit by Hurricane Irma, they do not have the luxury of making historical comparisons. From all accounts, Hurricane Irma’s path across the Caribbean Islands and Florida is strewn with untold misery and destruction. Irma is presently considered to have “[caused] one of the largest natural disaster power outages in U.S. history”.

What is worrisome is that we have not seen the end of these extreme weather events and it is highly likely they are only going to grow in intensity. You only have to take a cursory look at recent history to know that you do not have to be Warren Buffet to bet successfully on the recurrence of these phenomena. On the other hand, a better bet is what can be done to ensure power supply during these extreme weather events. The importance of grid reliability and resiliency, especially as a foundation to the provision of emergency services, needs not be overemphasized. This would explain why in the midst of these catastrophes, the stories of microgrid systems that provided power to grocery stores, gas stations, and more importantly, to the Texas Medical Center and other emergency services were not lost in the deluge. 

These stories are similar to those that emerged from Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy that hit the Northeast. With Sandy, even though an estimated 8.5 million people were without power and about a million lost power for a week, two microgrids: Princeton University and South Oaks Hospital on Long Island, continued to function in islanded mode for 3 and 15 days respectively. The resiliency provided by these islanded microgrids in the face of huge outages became an eye-opener to both regulators and utility executives. For customers in the NE who have continually suffered from power disruptions caused by severe outages, adopting new technologies like rooftop solar panels and battery storage became a no-brainer. The growing adoption of Distributed Energy Resources (DERs) has also been driven by capacity inadequacy at the grid edge. 

It can safely be said that the major outcome of these natural disasters and growth in power demand, at least in the Northeast, is the need for a smarter, reliable, and more resilient grid. This need, coupled with the drive to resolve capacity and congestion problems at the grid-edge, can be fulfilled by Non-Wires-Alternatives (NWAs). This phenomenon, the “so called” non-wires alternative solutions, is now largely favored by regulators and energy commissions who are turning down investments in upgrades from distribution companies and/or CAPEX in new transmission lines. Utilities in the Northeast are, therefore, seeking strategies to defer or even eliminate the need to construct or upgrade their transmission systems and distribution substations to make them smarter. This is especially important for system operators who are custodians of grid reliability and resiliency.

For utilities in the Northeast, the severity of Hurricane Harvey and Irma are a painful reminder of the reality of the impacts of extreme weather events and the fact that they need to take urgent steps to mitigate them. It is this sense of urgency, the indisputable likelihood of their recurrence, and their grave impacts on the grid that led OATI to launch USA Microgrids (USA MG), a wholly-owned subsidiary devoted to the development and provision of reliability and resiliency solutions that utilities can count on. As a company that believes in offering practical proven solutions to resolve mission critical challenges, OATI, in partnership with its new subsidiary USA MG, designed, built, and presently operates a microgrid that is now a one-of-a-kind Technology Center in the Midwest region. This microgrid uses OATI GridMind, an advanced microgrid controller with the capability to intelligently optimize local distributed generation, and provide load prioritization and ancillary services to the adjacent distribution grid. GridMind is also a critical resource for both consumer-owned and utility-owned microgrids. 

With the combined experience and expertise in developing highly successfully solutions for the transmission and distribution grid, and the learnings from building and operating its own microgrid, OATI and USA MG have the reservoir of resources that utilities in the NE can rely on to develop and deploy NWAs that are unique to their networks. OATI and USA MG experts are even available to provide consulting services to help utilities make sense of their unique challenges and then design scalable solution programs that take into consideration the distinct performance capabilities of grid-edge resources on their footprint.  

Even though non-wires alternatives can take different designs and flavors based on need, one practical and safe way to deliver a usable solution that could function with or without the adjacent grid is implementing a microgrid strategy. One way of doing this is to induce “behind-the-meter” customers to add this DER to their property as a grid resource. By doing this, reliability will be improved and yet localized to the low-voltage side of utility substations. This is due to the fact that microgrids are just a little different from general DERs for NWA, in that they don’t necessarily depend on the distribution system at all. In most cases, if the utility decides to shut down a substation, a simple DER will not improve grid reliability because the circuits will not be safe. Part of our offering, therefore, would be to encourage utilities to redesign the way substations work so that they can utilize NWA DER’s and remain safe.

Many utilities are beginning to take steps to plan the deployment of NWAs that will resolve their present challenges while preparing them to withstand future emergencies. At this point in time, it does not matter whether you believe that global warming is the cause of the destructing hurricanes afflicting the US eastern seaboard. What you can absolutely count on is the fact these extreme weather events are going to happen again and again with record-shattering devastation. OATI and USA MG are here to help provide the kind of long-term partnership you can rely on to resolve the unique challenges that you face right now and will continue to face if you only pray and hope. 

About the Author:
Mr. Rick Schmitt has over 25 years of direct experience in the energy industry. He doubles as the Director of Sales for Open Access Technology International, Inc. (OATI) and its new subsidiary, USA Microgrids, Inc. (USA MG). In this position, he is responsible for Microgrid and Smart Grid relationships with the Investor Owned Utilities (IOUs) as well as all sales activities in the Northeastern U.S. and Canada. Mr. Schmitt’s experience in the utility market has spanned Demand Response (DR), Energy Efficiency, Metering and Automated Metering Infrastructure (AMI), product development and system design. Mr. Schmitt is also a member of the IEEE and the IEEE Power Engineering Society and a former member of the Smart Grid Alliance.