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Momentary Outages: An Inconvenient Problem Millennials Won’t Tolerate

image credit: Photo 142507121 © Richard Van Der Spuy - Dreamstime

This item is part of the Special Issue - 09/2019 - Distributed Energy Resources, click here for more

It’s no secret distributed energy resources (DERs) have impacted the grid. For the last several years, much of industry’s discussions have revolved around two-way power flow and how the traditional, one-way system must fundamentally change to adapt to DERs. This change is monumental because it is reinventing the largest machine in the world, the U.S. power grid, which is more than 110 years old and needs help keeping up.

Yet there’s more to DERs than two-way power flow, and many are overlooking some of the wider implications that affect not only the grid changes needed now, but what’s required to build a safe and reliable system for the future. The engineering characteristic of the grid is changing. Lower inertia, when combined with voltage fluctuation, puts the focus on blinks of power outages—momentaries, as the power industry terms them—that can last as long as 5 minutes.

The Growing Role of Distribution

One of the biggest changes with DERs is rooted in the supply of energy itself. More and more energy is being consumed and produced within the distribution grid. In Hawaii, we’re even seeing how generation in the distribution system will surpass that of transmission. The grid, particularly the distribution system, is changing whether we are ready or not, and these changes don’t come without challenges of their own. This means utilities must reallocate spending into the distribution system because this is where significant change to the grid has and will continue to occur, and the result will be utilities spending less on traditional generation and yes, even transmission.

For this two-way power flow to be safe and efficient, the grid needs a change of architecture, one with a greater focus on reliability. The best path to achieve this is by further segmenting lines and using communication-equipped devices that can make decisions to quickly reroute power in the face of an outage.

Millennial Purchasing Power

DERs and the subsequent changes to the way the grid operates are being driven by the way consumers are using energy and what they expect from it. We are using the grid differently from how it was originally intended, and consumers are helping drive the changes we are seeing utilities focus on to help improve grid performance. While DERs have largely been fueled by the call for greener energy, especially from the younger generations, these voices will become stronger and stronger as the Millennial population grows to become the generation with the most purchasing power. 

Two years ago, IBM released study results suggesting that, by 2022, 49% of the world’s buying population will be Millennials or Generation X. Why does that matter? These younger generations have no tolerance for power outages. The standards currently in place for the grid were developed in the Seventies. As electricity dependency continues to rise, people will not accept outages of any length, whether they be a day, an hour, or even a quick blink. One utility leader has referred to this needed change as, ‘no outage left behind.’ When the purchasing power is in the hands of Millennials that have grown up with these higher expectations, they’ll put the strength of the dollar behind getting rid of outages.

We are seeing these changes in tolerance everywhere. At home, I have two children who are 5½ years old, and over the last two years, my family, like many, has adopted home automation. When I put my son to bed and leave the room for the night, I occasionally hear him say, “Alexa, tell me a bedtime story.” Alexa has become a part of our personal lives. But when the power isn’t on, that convenience goes away, and my children are always quick to let me know when Alexa isn’t working!

We, as a society, are increasingly creating an environment of great convenience hinged on our ability to automate and digitally interconnect every aspect of our lives. The “blinks” that occur on the grid have been easy to ignore in the past, but as technology dependency continues to rise, those blinks are as much of a problem as any outage of a recordable length by industry standards.

Ignoring the Problem

And therein lies one of the main problems: many of these momentary outages aren’t being measured. Most utilities begin measuring outages once they hit five minutes long, based on a 1970s measurement standard for reliability. This is especially concerning with the influx of DERs because even a blink in power will kick inverters offline, and it can take several minutes for these devices to restart, causing an inrush of power supply from elsewhere, which has the potential to overwhelm the traditional grid and cause a resultant supply frequency drop.

While momentaries can be a nuisance at the residential level, they are even more impactful at the commercial level. In industries where continuous power is crucial, the effects of a momentary outage can have countless business impacts. Manufacturers, hospitals, airports, prisons, universities—the list of industries that can identify real points of loss due to a momentary outage goes on and on.

I was recently told a story about a bottling plant that experienced a momentary outage last year. Immediately following the blink, there was a loud crash as bottles rained from the sky. All of them had fallen because they had been held up to the moving line by vacuum technology. This is just one example of how the cost of even a short outage adds up when you look at lost time, lost production, and lost materials.

What Success Looks Like

Some utilities are tackling DERs head on and are measuring momentaries, turning the data they are collecting into real change with the goal of making the grid blink less. Florida Power & Light Company is a prime example of a utility making sweeping changes systemwide to reduce momentaries. This has translated directly into higher customer satisfaction.

Another example of rearchitecting the grid with a focus on higher reliability is EPB Chattanooga, one of the early adopters to take a systemwide approach to reliability improvement. That utility added more segmentation devices, enabled with communications to help reroute power quickly when an outage occurs, to keep the lights on for as many people as possible, as often as possible.

The investment in EPB Chattanooga’s grid and its customers ended up saving the utility in operations and maintenance costs because it was sending line crews out less often to fix avoidable problems. Chattanooga ended up becoming one of the most reliable grids in the country, and the community’s economy reflects that, with many manufactures and other companies moving there because of how reliable power is in the city.

The need for better reliability isn’t going away. And as end-customers continue to voice their disappointment when the lights go out, it will be more important for the industry to begin looking at solutions to help guarantee those lights stay on.

The good news is there are ways for utilities to help bring the grid of the future to life. By moving away from conventional solutions and looking toward advanced switching and protection devices and communications-enabled technology, the grid of the future is well within our grasp.

Mike Edmonds's picture

Thank Mike for the Post!

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Discussions

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Aug 27, 2019 12:29 pm GMT

Thanks for sharing, Mike. It's definitely interesting to note how the needs of the grid users have obviously evolved over the past few decades compared with a more or less stagnant standards for the grids, like you mentioned. 

As a Millenial, though, I feel compelled to light-heartedly point out that I know many Boomers & older in my family who would get quite angsty if they couldn't post to Facebook on their iPads or watch the local news because of a power outage. It's the whole world that relies on this digital conversion, not just us :)

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