Energy, Environment, Power, Resilience

Record-breaking cold and a historic wind chill advisory recently swept across the state of Texas causing widespread power outages, energy supply shortages and frozen pipes. In order to strengthen our energy infrastructure and protect our communities, AECOM’s Darcy Immerman says we need to rethink how we generate and deliver power.

Texans have traditionally had reliable power delivered from large energy producers. But a combination of physical and cyber-related threats exacerbated by extreme weather conditions are testing the electric grid with increasing frequency. To be resilient in the future, the grid needs to move from a system dominated by large power suppliers to one that includes a network of smaller, more nimble energy resources. According to grid operator officials from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas the recent weather disaster put Texas’ power grid “seconds and minutes” away from a catastrophic failure that could have left Texans in the dark for months.

A state of emergency has been declared in Texas. While this will help provide funds for recovery, it will also give Texas the opportunity to strengthen its energy infrastructure against future threats by integrating disaster risk reduction measures into the restoration of physical infrastructure, social systems and shelter.

What went wrong?

The electric grid was designed to deliver power with reasonable degree of certainty even in extreme conditions. To achieve this, most systems rely on a series of redundant back up equipment. During the recent weather disaster, many of these systems failed across Texas, leading to prolonged outages. Some have mistakenly questioned whether renewable energy resources were to blame, but this ignores the root causes of grid functionality and the aging infrastructure we use to deliver power.

Fixing the grid won’t happen overnight and the investment required is significant. To optimize this spending, these improvements should anticipate increasing frequency and unpredictability of shock or stress to the grids. According to Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) a resilient system must have “the capability to anticipate, absorb, adapt to, and/or rapidly recover from” disruptive events.

Local energy resources as a system backup: Distributed Energy Resources (DER)

As part of a post-disaster resiliency strategy, major power users should consider developing localized, distributed generation. By siting power resources locally, communities, businesses and infrastructure will become more resilient in the face of challenges both natural, like climate change, and man-made, like cyber-attacks. This strategy typically includes onsite power generation, a storage system and a microgrid to provide local generation and local control that can be islanded from the larger grid to keep power flowing.

On-site power can be generated by renewable resources like solar panels, small wind turbines and geothermal power or by more traditional natural gas generators. Storage, in the form of batteries or other technologies, provides back up energy to use during energy spikes or post-emergency. A microgrid uses smart technology to distribute the power locally, island power off the larger grid and connect to the larger grid for backup as needed.

Localized distributed generation will not and should not replace the bulk power system which is much needed for reliability. Local resources can, however, be extremely effective by providing a backup source of electricity, or alleviating strain on the larger grid by serving loads locally in the event of extreme weather events.

Spreading the cost: Energy as a Service (EaaS)

To help pay for this transition to distributed energy, the finance community has embraced the Energy as a Service (EaaS) model. A service provider owns the equipment and the customer pays for the service that equipment provides, for instance a kilowatt of power. This model shifts the upfront capital cost of the equipment to an operational expense for the distributed energy used over time.

Why resilience should be a top priority

Texas has been badly shaken by recent events, which have left many communities in the cold during one of the toughest winters on record. Already there is a determination to emerge from this stronger, and the recovery funds offer an opportunity to reboot. New financing models like EaaS that spread the upfront cost could make those funds go further while significantly improving energy resilience and protect the wellbeing and livelihood of her citizens.

Darcy Immerman is Senior Vice President, Energy for AECOM. In this position, Ms. Immerman collaborates with corporations, universities, utilities and healthcare to become more resilient, recover from shocks and stresses and manage risk by integrating disaster preparedness with a strategy for rapid response and recovery deploying distributed energy resources. Darcy is a past recipient of the Presidential Award for Leadership in Federal Management from the U.S. Department of Energy and an Energy Efficiency Award from National Resources Canada, Office of Energy Efficiency. She is currently serving on the Executive Advisory Council of the IEEE Power and Energy Society.

Originally published 02.24.2021

Author: Darcy Immerman