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Energy and Security

Paul Kando

Last November 2, a Sunday, a storm featuring 40 mph winds dumped a foot of wet, heavy snow across coastal Maine. An estimated 166,000 customers of CMP lost power – more than 80 percent of the homes and businesses across 14 counties the electric utility serves. The following Wednesday 2,887 CMP customers in Knox, Lincoln and Waldo counties, including the whole town of Friendship, were still without power.

Storm knocking down power lines
photo credit: Wikipedia

For most of us, such an outage means running a generator or no refrigeration, running water, lights, computers and other such conveniences -- and, absent a wood stove, no heat either. In a prolonged blackout businesses can’t verify credit and debit cards, filling stations cannot pump fuel, and so on. Indeed, Homeland Security types worry about the security of the entire national electric power grid, which could be disabled for a long period of time by a powerful electromagnetic pulse (EMP) -- a burst of electromagnetic energy in the form of a radiated, electric or magnetic field or a conducted electric current. The source may be natural or man-made. An EMP can disrupt or damage electronic equipment, and at higher energy levels, such as lightning, can also damage physical objects like buildings and aircraft.

The damaging effects of high-energy EMPs have been used to create nuclear and non-nuclear EMP weapons. Imagine the power grid disabled for a long period of time! Imagine our nuclear power plants and fuel stores without outside power – or don’t imagine: simply Google images of Fukushima!

Doomsday scenarios aside, we know that centralized, hierarchical systems are generally more vulnerable than decentralized ones. Consider the bloodless demise of a highly centralized Soviet Union and the difficulty of trying to contain, let alone defeat, decentralized terrorist networks. In the energy context, a distributed power system, comprised of potentially stand alone units that can be de-coupled from the larger grid is inherently more secure than a centralized model. This is why smart microgrids powered by locally available renewable energy sources like solar panels are important for grid security.

Smart microgrids utilize real-time bidirectional digital communications to balance power production and consumption, enhancing the efficiency and reliability of the power supply. With fluctuating supplies of renewable energy entering the power grid, smart grids are becoming especially important. They also give consumers a more active role in the energy market, made possible by automation, advanced sensors, and decentralized communications.

Each smart microgrid is run by an automated management system custom-designed based on a comprehensive analysis of its economic potential, load profile, geographical conditions and customer behavior. It makes sense wherever a stand-alone grid is feasible or necessary for reasons of geography, infrastructure, or security of supply. In addition to islands, remote settlements and independent grids of local utilities, potential applications include universities, government organizations, communities, industrial complexes and shopping centers. Their availability and power quality is high, as is their potential for operating independently of the supply grid. This makes microgrids the logical choice wherever security of supply matters.