Our modern life depends on the vast electric grids to power everything from light bulbs to mass transit subways. Despite tremendous strides in technological innovation, the existing grid is largely built on an aging design. This design is essentially a centralized grid architecture based on large power generation plants in remote locations that are connected to the customer sites through a complex labyrinth of transmission and distribution (T&D) network. The coordination of electricity production in alternating current (AC) combined with delivery through the complex T&D network is managed by regional system operators or independent system operators (ISOs). The ISOs must balance not only the electricity production and consumption in real time, but also ensure the electricity produced remotely is transported to customer sites without running into congestions on the vast T&D network. While the current electric power grids are a marvel of engineering feats, this enormously complex centralized power grid design is showing its age. Today’s centralized power grids face significant challenges in providing safe, reliable, secure, and affordable energy services.
PROBLEMS OF MODERN CENTRALIZED POWER GRID
Environmental and Public Health Problems, California October 23, 2015 – The underground natural gas storage located in Aliso Canyon (Los Angeles) had a massive leak1 . This storage facility is the second-largest natural gas storage facility of its kind in the United States, and it supplies gas to electric power generation plants throughout Southern California. The leak problem was so dire that it prompted California Governor Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency on January 6, 2016. This Aliso Canyon incident created the environmental disaster that was estimated to be larger than the Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico. It was assessed that the Aliso Canyon gas leak released approximately 5.3 gigatons of harmful methane gas into the Earth’s atmosphere, or equivalent to about 12,800 years of the total annual emission of the entire South Coast Air Basin in Southern California. The power utilities in Southern California implemented contingency plans in anticipation of the natural gas shortages for powering the local gas-based electric plants. In the meanwhile, the local residents reported headaches, nausea and severe nosebleeds. About 50 children per day saw school nurses for severe nosebleeds. By January 2016, nearly three thousand households or about eleven thousand people had been temporarily relocated while more than 6,500 families have filed for help. There are other numerous but disastrous centralized grid accidents such as the Chernobyl and the Fukushima incidents. In the Chernobyl nuclear power plant catastrophe2 , over 300,000 people were forced to relocate permanently. This nuclear accident released traceable airborne radioactive particles in all countries in the northern hemisphere. As these few examples attest, the centralized grids pose increasingly unbearable impacts to the environment, health, and safety of the people that it serves. Safety and Reliability Problems, California September 8, 2011 – A deficient equipment maintenance procedure at a transmission switch station in Yuma, Arizona, initiated cascade grid power failures that left more than seven million residents without electricity, from San Diego County to western Arizona and Tijuana3 . This major incident exposed the inherent susceptibility of the centralized power grid to point-vulnerabilities. Like the Aliso Canyon gas leak incident, a failure at one single point on the centralized power grid could cause adverse impacts to millions of customers over vast areas. Whether natural or human-induced accidents at any vulnerable points that could be located anywhere on the complex centralized power grid sprawling over the vast geographical areas, the existing power grid’s ability to guarantee safe and reliable energy services looks to be increasingly challenged. Adaptability and Resilience, Melbourne, January 28, 2018 – More than 10,000 homes in Australia’s second most populous state were stuck without power as a surge in power demands from the scorching heat wave overloaded the grid4 . This blackout was caused by a power network failure, rather than supply shortages. It impacted more than 50,00 homes. This came less than a year after Australia’s largest City, Sydney, was hit by
THE ELONCITY MODEL
11 blackouts during another heat wave. During an intense heat wave, power demands can precipitously peak as customers increase their air conditioning. Meanwhile, the grid T&D wires and electric power plants experience reduced electricity transmission and generation due to increased ambient temperature. In the foreseeable future of climate change, cities around the world are expected to experience growing incidents of grid failures due to adverse weathers. From heat waves in Australia and California to frigid winter spells in the northeastern US, to hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, Rita or Maria, we have witnessed repeated episodes of massive grid failures due to the system’s inability to adapt and absorb the disruptions brought about by climate-change-induced events. Unaffordable Electricity Cost, USA April 14, 2016 – According to a study by Groundswell, a nonprofit renewable energy advocacy group, the cost of electricity is increasingly burdensome for America’s working class. The study reports the bottom 20 percent of earners spend about 10 percent of their income on electricity5 . There are a few reasons for centralized grid’s high costs of electricity: (a) Five to nine percent6,7 of the total energy produced is lost during the electricity transmission and distribution. As discussed above, the T&D losses amplified during hot weather spells due to increasing resistance in the T&D wires and equipment as temperature rises; (b) the electricity in AC is relatively complex which requires numerous supporting resources, called ancillary services, to ensure the delivered powers at customer sites remain within the required power quality limits. Examples of ancillary service would be frequency regulation, and voltage-level regulation. Unfortunately, the required ancillary services for the centralized AC grid are costly and account from three to seven percent of the total electricity bill8; (c) Capacity services to ensure adequate power generation capacity to maintain grid reliability during periods of peak demand. The capacity services or standby capacity reserve are compulsory because the today’s power grid lacks real-time coordination of customer power demands with the system’s available power supply. In another word, since the real-time management of power demands at customer sites lacking, the centralized grids procure excess generation capacity to standby just in case they are needed. These capacity services are also costly and can add up to 15 percent of the total bill9 . These examples are just a few of the innate and costly inefficiency of the centralized AC power grid design that drives up the cost of electricity for all ratepayers.
THE SOLUTION - THE ELONCITY MODEL
With the challenges of natural disasters, population growth, and climate change, new approaches to energy production and distribution are needed. The solutions must warrant vibrant and sustained growth for all. AI Grid Foundation (Foundation) is a non-profit organization based in Singapore who advocates for employing decentralized renewable energy as a possible pathway to address the problematic centralized AC grids as mentioned above. The Foundation has collaborated with global organizations and local communities to develop the Eloncity Model; a multifaceted solution that employs decentralized renewable energy resources to eradicate barriers to attain safe, healthy, vibrant and equitable energy future. Decentralized renewable energy is employing locally available renewable resources, such as solar or wind power, to produce electricity locally where it is consumed. When energy customers in a community coordinate with each other to exchange energy and share energy equipment costs-benefits (e.g., solar PV, BESS, energy management system, and others) to access more reliable and cost-effective local energy supply, to maximize the utilization rates of the installed equipment for accelerated return-of-investment (ROI) and other benefits, they essentially create a community-based renewable microgrid. This type of decentralized community-based renewable microgrid holds tremendous potential for fortifying the centralized grids and solving the problems threatening our energy safety and security.
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