From the batteries we use to power our smartphones to supplying fail-proof energy to data centres, hospitals and entire cities, our dependence on electricity is at an all-time high…
When Hurricane Maria slammed Puerto Rico in September 2017, the effects were nothing less than catastrophic. One of the deadliest hurricanes in the history of the United States, the total number of deaths from the devastation remains in question, with the official government figure at 2,975 lives lost.
While no one could have predicted the extent of the damage, decades of an unstable economy combined with a woefully fragile and outdated electrical grid left the Commonwealth vulnerable to disaster. That word is not too strong – quite apart from the personal and familial tragedies, the knock-on effects of the destruction are still being felt three years after Maria’s wrath.
Almost a year (328 days, to be exact) after Hurricane Maria wiped-out power to the Island , the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) announced that electricity was restored to its 1.5 million customers. Although broadly correct, the announcement was treated with some skepticism by residents, who, months after the hurricane, were still complaining that the power supply was unreliable.
With the extreme windstorm wiping out approximately 80 percent of Puerto Rico’s power grid, revelations, of how poorly designed and constructed the entire system was, soon emerged, including the uncertain plight of citizens depending on electricity for everyday needs such as powering their hospitals, communication systems, factories, stores and homes.
Every generation has its own “Where were you when the power went out?” tales. In November 1965, one of the biggest-ever power outages hit the northeastern United States and Ontario, Canada, spawning a popular myth about housebound, TV-less couples, and the unusual number of births that were registered precisely nine months later.
In August 2003, the northeast blackout paralyzed much of central Canada and the northeastern U.S. Full power took two long weeks to restore.
Major disruptive electricity losses due largely to weather and Category 5 hurricanes like Katrina in 2005, and Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, reveal just how dependant we truly are on reliable delivery of power.
In the 55 years since the Northeast Blackout of 1965 – caused by the failure of a protective relay at a hydroelectric power station – our need for power has skyrocketed. In the Sixties, the average household had an electric fridge, stove, washing machine, one television set, a record player, light fixtures, and a few electrical outlets, usually one or two per room.
Today, many homes have multiple energy-gobbling appliances including clothes dryers and washing machines, coffee-makers, food processors and microwaves, along with stereos and home theatres, multiple flat-screen TVs, and countless devices such as Smart phones, laptops, desktop computers, and gaming consoles like PlayStation, Nintendo, and Xbox.
December 2013 showed much of North America that one of the biggest threats to energy stability is winter storms. A combination of freezing rain and snow crippled eastern portions of Canada and the United States, extending all the way to the Southern U.S., and causing over $200 million in damages to property and power lines. It left many without power for weeks.
The ice storm also triggered mass sales of generators, from small rechargeable battery-powered units to large, home, standby systems powered by natural or liquid petroleum gas, which kick-in automatically when the electricity goes.
With electricity prices rising for households, businesses, and manufacturers, the way we supply, consume, store, and save on energy bills, is no longer just a matter of turning off unnecessary lights and switching to energy-efficient LED bulbs, but big business worth billions of dollars.
Energy storage devices from manufacturers like Tesla, Genesis Energy, AutoGrid, BYD and others are in the market with rechargeable lithium-ion batteries for homes and industrial spaces.
Often operating with an array of solar panels, products like Tesla’s Powerwall and Powerpack store energy from the sun for use during the day, when the demand is higher and electricity more expensive, while drawing power during the evening, when it’s cheaper.
In our homes power outages are inconvenient and annoying, but rarely catastrophic compared to what goes on in data centres, hospitals, senior care facilities and other large-scale institutions where two things precious to us, lives and information, hang in the balance.
The processes the world runs on today don’t so much thrive on data as depend for their very survival on an uninterrupted supply. From daily tasks like banking to making online purchases and updating Smartphone operating systems, our need to access and store information is more vital than ever before.
While many of us routinely store and back up information on our personal computers, more users are taking advantage of offsite Cloud-type storage. These offsite data centres are usually designed to be single purpose.
From a construction standpoint, data centres rival the structural security of Kentucky’s Fort Knox. Often located away from main roads, these robust centres have few windows and doors, but plenty of cameras and intensive round-the-clock security, limiting entry to very few.
On the tech side, security information and event management (SIEM) systems provide security event information in real time. Massive servers generate plenty of heat, and require stable electricity for cooling at exact temperatures. To prevent data loss from electrical outages, data centres have backup and standby generators usually fuelled by liquid-cooled diesel, or natural gas.
The world depends on electrical grids to deliver power via a matrix of generating stations, substations, and high-voltage transmission lines to homes and businesses worldwide. As the lessons of Puerto Rico’s still unstable power grid and various ice storms continue to teach us, electricity delivery requires a lot more than flipping a switch.
To prevent a repeat of power loss during hurricanes to come, as there surely will be, Puerto Rico’s government announced a massive scheme to modernize its power grid.
With a $20 billion budget, the 10-year plan will see extensive repairs, the burying of above-ground power lines, and a greater use of natural gas as a source of energy. Most notable is the government’s intention to create a system at least robust enough to withstand winds of 160 miles per hour (257 kilometres per hour) instead of 145 mph (233 km/h).
Another ambitious initiative put forward by PREPA in its 310-page report, Puerto Rico Integrated Resource Plan 2018-2019, is the division of the Caribbean Island into eight renewable energy “mini-grids” or “micro-grids.” Although inter-connected, the grids would still be able to generate their own power in a crisis.
One alternative: greater use of solar energy with battery storage. While the move towards solar is being applauded by environmental groups such as the Sierra Club de Puerto Rico, the organization is pushing-back on PREPA’s building of any new liquid natural gas facilities.
“Getting new solar and storage deployed quickly should also allow PREPA and its customers to move away from high cost imported fossil fuels, reduce toxic emissions, and reduce costs for families and businesses,” says the Sierra Club’s Senior Strategy and Technical Advisor Jeremy Fisher.
“I hope the utility is able to move forward quickly on cost-effectively implementing these solar and storage plans, and looks to minimize new investments in fossil fuel plants and imports. Puerto Rico has a unique opportunity to transition away from oil and coal, and accelerate towards a clean energy future for the benefit of ratepayers, public health, and the environment.”
While no one can predict the severity of the next hurricane to strike the Caribbean or the scale of damage future ice storms may cause across North America, one thing is certain: as our dependence on electricity keeps growing, the need for reliable 24/7 power – derived from fossil fuels or environmentally-friendly sources like solar and wind – is an absolute necessity.