A Power Grid Overstretched for the Future - Barış Sanlı

The power grid is named as one of the most complex, interconnected, and biggest machine human ingenuity has ever achieved. It works in real-time. The whole machine is designed to incorporate the uncertainty of humankind’s request for ad-hoc energy needs and the failures of machines as well as cables. The tools, algorithms, engineering challenges are all accumulated in this backbone of the modern economy.


Now, the power grid faces at least twin challenges from climate change and renewables. Both seem to interconnect in the political agenda. But the grid never appears as an issue. There is just this “smartening” of this backbone, which has no unified definition. More and more technologies and communication systems will be integrated, and with a little bit of magic, there is the future grid. Then the platform and market place will be revolutionized with the grid transformation. It is the whole story.


But the reality is far from these aims. Recently wildfires in California have been a challenge for the future of grid discussions. In short, last year, power lines caused wildfires in California. This year the company implemented systematic blackouts to avoid any fires caused by power lines in the driest dates. The exciting part of the story is the company’s efforts to instrument consumers resisted preventive line outages, and then next, or a few days later, fires erupted last year. Then the customers filed cases against the company for the wildfire damages. The company then applied for bankruptcy protection. This year, the company didn’t leave any room for chance or customer resistance and started preventive outages. It affected 2.5 million people in California.


The increasing frequency of wildfires may be due to the warming of the climate. But we see an increase in the number and scale of disasters. The power grid is the most fragile part of this new equation. But to prevent climate change, more renewables had to be utilized. Then we came to the story of (South) Australian blackouts and UK power cut. For both cases, the renewables have contributed to the power disturbances.


Then the disasters and disaster preparedness enters the scene. According to Itron’s “Disaster Preparedness 2019 Edition”, after 1970, the natural disasters “quadrupled to 400 a year”. For the US, the losses amount to $1 trillion. The surveys are done in the US. 87% of customers are saying they have been impacted by one in the last five years. 53% of utility executives say they are very or extremely concerned about the likelihood of a disaster in the next five years. For the consumers, the same sentiment is at 40%.


We are sure that renewables are the way to go. The disasters are expected to increase. Electricity’s share in overall energy consumption to climb up — customers’ requests for cheaper electricity services to escalate. Then everyone’s right to produce his electricity to be the norm. It is such a complicated optimization problem to be solved.


One interesting strategy to solve this puzzle or optimization problem is to have a hybrid grid. The hybrid grid should have “micro or mezzo grids” connected with the mega grid. It should also have a silent and reliable operation as well as a smart mode. The topology should be as hard as the wires and poles, but it should be dynamically rerouted with algorithms and autonomous processes.


But today’s grid is not there yet. More research and studies had to be carried out to find the way forward. For most of the customers, the network is intrinsic and natural. However, the future demands a more living and cosmopolite grid.


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