Tens of thousands of people lost electricity in the heat wave in July.  Is the electrical system ready for climate change?

Tens of thousands of people lost electricity in the heat wave in July. Is the electrical system ready for climate change?

Experts say the wiring and substations that bring electricity to homes and businesses are already getting strained as housing density increases, and many parts of it are likely to need updating or expansion in the future when demand could double or triple with state adoption at all. More about clean electricity to replace fossil fuel energy.

said Richard Levitan, president of energy management consulting firm Levitan & Co. “Failure for a day or hours when the temperature is 100 degrees is potentially devastating.”

On social media during the July heatwave, some unlucky and unhappy customers thought the blackout was akin to problems in Texas, where the power grid’s failure to keep pace with demand had dire consequences. but the The power grid here, operated by ISO-New England, had no failures as in Texas, and it had Lots of spare capacity each day of a heat wave, even as demand increases with increased use of air conditioners.

What happened, instead, was a failure in the distribution system—the substations, transformers, and wires that carry electricity from power lines to neighborhoods and homes. These local networks are affected by the requirements of a particular street or area – mitigated in some places, perhaps, by the presence of solar panels in homes or intensified by the demands of large users such as apartment buildings with air conditioners and fast chargers. electric car.

The pressure on those local networks, experts said, is a problem that will become more pressing.

“You have to start with the basic infrastructure question: Are we building infrastructure fast enough and looking forward enough to anticipate what our future will look like, and is it built in a way that handles severe weather?” said Jeff Dennis, general counsel at Advanced Energy Economy, an industry group, and former director of the policy development division at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

At National Grid, Carol Sedwitz, vice president of electrical asset management and engineering, said the company’s equipment is designed for the highest temperatures Massachusetts has seen in recent years, up to 100 degrees. But it is only designed to withstand that heat for short periods and risks failing when cold weather doesn’t come quickly.

“Your substation equipment depends on that,” she said.

Now that heat waves often last longer, and nighttime temperatures remain higher than they used to be, a rethinking of how certain equipment is expected to perform is a must, as well as re-engineering it for more severe weather, such as heavy rain, Sedewitz said. High winds, droughts and extreme heat waves.

Craig Hallstrom, head of electrical operations at Eversource, said the outages in his company’s service area during the heat wave were the result of equipment overheating, causing some joints and cables to malfunction.

“There’s been a lot of failure in the subway system, where there’s not a lot of airflow, and the lines tend to retain heat,” he said.

As Eversource and National Grid, which are responsible for providing the lion’s share of the state’s electricity, plan ahead, they’re looking to upgrade to inverters that can handle a greater load.

Doubling the demand for electricity No It necessarily means the need to double the size of the infrastructure, experts said, because newer equipment is likely to be able to handle the higher demand. But some new substations and transformers will be needed – and that could spark controversy.

In East Boston, for example, Eversource is attempting to build a new substation, but the choice of site next to a stadium next to Chelsea Creek has led to strong resistance among community advocates, who fear a regular flooding at that site will cause a fire. They also noted that environmental sanitation communities have historically bore the brunt of industrial infrastructure, and that siting decisions now can help either redress past damage or make it worse.

As utilities try to find locations for new substations, they are also developing a new type of distribution system.

Currently, electricity mostly travels in one direction: from an energy source — such as a gas-fired fossil fuel power plant, or, increasingly, renewables such as solar and wind — to a building. But this is changing.

With the growth of solar power on rooftops, more businesses and homeowners are generating the power they need. In the future, experts say, such installations will increasingly be able to send surplus solar electricity back to the grid, but this requires new sophisticated metering equipment and new market rules to allow energy to move in both directions.

Advances in battery technology will also affect the shape of the grid and neighborhood networks.

“In the future, most of us will have some level of large battery in the home,” said Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association, whether it’s an electric car or something like a Tesla Powerwall, which can store the energy generated by solar panels and then use it as energy backup. There are even scenarios in which the car battery in a new electric car can send energy home.

Policy experts, the state’s Department of Public Utilities, and utilities are studying how to modernize the grid so that in the near future they can incentivize customers to charge their cars in times of low demand, and then use their car battery to help power their homes. During a heat wave, it decreases pressure on local networks.

“Electric cars and buses, along with solar and storage, can put energy back into the grid when there is an unexpectedly hot or cold day,” said Melissa Berchard, director of clean energy and grid repair at the Acadia Center. energy.

A fully charged Ford F-150 Lightning truck can supply enough electricity to an entire home for up to 10 days, according to Ford. And last summer, an electric school bus in Beverly was used to provide more than 50 hours of energy back to the power grid.

Berchard said electric school buses, which are only used for a few hours each day during the school year, and even less during the summer, are just one of the new technologies that show promise in this regard.

It’s all about rethinking the tools available, said Dennis, of Advanced Energy Economy. “You really need to make the demand more flexible, and really make it a network resource,” he said. “If we have large fleets of electric vehicles that have batteries, let’s make these things a resource to the grid.”

Sabrina Shankman can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter Tweet embed.

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