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Fixing Blame or Seeking Solutions

Paul Kando

I recently attended a legislative committee meeting evaluating the performance of Maine electric utilities in response to the massive power outage following last October’s major windstorm. As I expected, there were numerous complaints about CMP, most of which boiled down to defective communications. But did CMP and Emera do a good and timely job restoring their respective power-delivery systems?

Fixing Blame
photo credit: linkedin

You be the judge: Between them the two utilities had 557,000 customers without power at the peak of the outage, more than a third of New England’s 1.5 million. Hundreds of fallen trees had to be removed, 1655 broken poles, 1878 transformers and miles of wire replaced. Nearly 1900 line workers and 975 tree experts had to be dispatched, supervised, housed and fed. Half of those who lost power got it back within 3 days, and all but 3% within 5 days. Only some difficult cases took longer.

The meeting was disappointing. It focused on failures and fixing blame instead of solutions. If the purpose of the power grid is to provide reliable electricity under all weather conditions, we should have discussed how well that objective is served by our utilities’ last-century business models and demonstrably vulnerable distribution systems. Will they have to spend another combined $104 million—or more—after every major storm? Are there innovative ways to reduce these costs, e.g., by minimizing the need for out-of-state repair crews as segments of a modern power-grid of networked microgrids stay on, limiting power outages and the need for hurried repairs?

Focusing on problems without seeking creative solutions—in the hope that improvements will result or people will be motivated to act—strikes me as a fool’s errand. In the absence of positive state-level leadership, local communities must address these questions from their own perspective, coming up with their own solutions at their own scale—even beginning with the individual house—where homeowners have 100% control over their carbon footprint— and then more broadly.

The technology exists for each of us to reduce our home’s energy waste by up to 90%, and then install a solar system along with a smart battery bank of sufficient capacity to cover the remaining power needs, including heating the place and the hot water with electric heat pumps. On normal days such a system will feed into or draw power from the grid, depending on demand and the amount of solar power available.  Each house could also share access to its battery bank with an enlightened utility, helping it avoid having to buy power at peak times—saving us all money.

Should the grid go down, our smart battery bank will automatically “island” our house from the grid, so it relies on a combination of solar and battery power for the duration of the outage. In short, our houses can become self-sufficient “mini-microgrids”—provided we have the money to finance this “negawatt”+solar+battery solution. Vermont's Green Mountain Power (GMP) already makes this possible for everyone in its service area. Together with partners like Tesla, solar companies, and Efficiency Vermont, it offers discount prices and the option to finance the full cost through the electric bill. Everyone wins when an electric utility adapts to 21st century needs and opportunities.

Not surprisingly, GMP and its customers also benefit from larger scale projects. Stafford Hill Solar Farm is a $10 million microgrid the utility installed on the capped landfill of Rutland city back in 2014. It consists of 7,700 solar panels—2 MW of solar power—backed up by 4 MW of battery storage. During power blackouts this microgrid powers Rutland High School as an emergency shelter. Otherwise it helps GMP meet a 400 MW capacity need, and contributes to the state’s stated goal to be 90% renewably powered by 2050. Improved power quality on GMP’s distribution system is another benefit, since the microgrid’s batteries provide nearly instantaneous voltage regulation, Revenues derived by GMP from Stafford Hill include reduced ISO New England regulation services and capacity payments, avoided Regional Network Service Charges, and energy arbitrage. GMP realized $200,000 in savings from avoided peak power purchases alone during the microgrid’s first summer of operation.

Coming on line this year, are 3 new GMP microgrids – in Hartland, Newbury and Weathersfield. Each features a 5 MW solar array, and 2 MW of battery storage. They cost, on average, $8.8 million each, and will provide peak load management, solar smoothing, and customer islanding during prolonged power outages, improving grid reliability and increasing renewable energy production in Vermont.

Why not in Maine?