The devastating impact of Hurricane Sandy which rolled through the Caribbean and along the U.S. eastern seaboard in the fall of 2012 with the disruptive intensity of a drunken Tasmanian devil was a lethal, costly and (unfortunately) no longer uncommon occurrence. Coming just a year after the seventh-costliest hurricane in U.S. history, Hurricane Irene, Sandy was the second-most damaging storm to ever hit America, placing behind 2005s Katrina but ahead of 2008s Hurricane Ike and 2004s Hurricane Ivan.
Causing damage estimated at more than $68 billion, and with a death toll of at least 233 people, Sandy may have been a near-unprecedented event, but was far from unique in its ability to remind ordinary Americans that extreme weather events of this nature may be easy to predict but are impossible to stop.
Hurricane Sandy has, however, proven instructive in many ways. From the military to the average downtown store owner, each has learnt how to mitigate the effects of the barrage of stormy battering that has persistently jabbed at the U.S. east coast over the past decade. But Sandys sheer brute force took even the hardiest hurricane veterans by surprise. Power outages were widespread, as expected, but many critical backup power supplies also went down, most worryingly in some of the countrys leading medical institutions. An NYU Langone Medical Center had to evacuate hundreds of patients many of whom were in intensive care as all power from the diesel backup generator was also lost.
According to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the frequency of these devastating extreme weather events is increasing. In 2014 alone there were 42 weather events that caused at least $1 billion in damage, and since 2010 there have been as many extreme weather events as the 1960s and 1980s combined. The National Climatic Data Center forecasts that this decade could see as many as 644 weather disasters, compared to just over 400 in the 1990s.
With California currently undergoing its worst drought on record, and 2014 the hottest year ever, few could argue that a tangible shift in the global climate is not occurring. Proponents of the renewable energy sector have been arguing such for decades, and the encouraging growth of the solar PV industry in the past few years is testament to the trust people are now placing in solar as a primary alternative energy source.
In the wake of more frequent extreme weather events, the adaptability of solar-powered applications is also proving increasingly attractive to municipalities, hospitals, the military and remote communities in the U.S. that are more susceptible and vulnerable than most to unexpected blackouts.
Solar as insurance policy
One trend that appears to be emerging across the U.S. power landscape in 2015 involves the proliferation of solar-powered microgrids. This year already, solar leasing leader SolarCity has announced the launch of its GridLogic service a solar-powered microgrid complete with battery backup, islanding mode, and grid compatibility that has been rolled out globally.
The California Energy Commission (CEC) recently awarded $2.8 million in funding to global electronics giant Bosch to help deliver an integrated, distributed solar with battery storage and load management-capable microgrid to the U.S. market. Bosch is set to install microgrids in remote communities, municipalities, hospitals and military bases and will hope to test the grids resiliency in the face of tumultuous weather. The CEC also recently granted $5 million for San Diego Gas & Electric to expand its Borrego Springs microgrid to enable it to operate solely on solar power generated from a nearby 26 MW plant.
Meanwhile, SunEdison a vertically integrated U.S. solar company has got in on the microgrid act with its Social Innovations program, which pledges to bring electricity to 20 million people around the world by 2020. In March the company also acquired a 100 MW project pipeline from Philadelphia-based microgrid startup company, Solar Grid Storage.
Each of these projects point to a growing trend that sees solar as both primary power source and fail-safe insurance policy. Whether grid connection is impossible, intermittent or merely one option, solar, in contrast, is increasingly proving a guaranteed go-to power source, underscored by improving resilience, falling component costs and ever-more sophisticated funding methods. For SolarCity, the serendipitous coming-together of these market conditions was just as important in provoking the company to pursue the microgrid segment as was the growing need to mitigate against increasingly unstable weather, says the companys Senior Project Manager of Grid Engineering Solutions, Daidipya Patwa.
We identified a growing need among communities, particularly those in the northeast of the U.S. where they are often hit by severe storms, to have more resilience in their backup power sources, and especially those that require uninterrupted power for critical facilities, Patwa told pv magazine . But we have also noted that many of these communities do not necessarily have the deep
xAdvertisementenergy expertise required, nor the funds available, to properly install and manage a microgrid. This is where SolarCitys new GridLogic comes into play. A complete turnkey solution, the GridLogic microgrid is offered as a reliable power package, complete with solar panels, inverters, Tesla lithium-ion batteries and state-of-the-art software that can manage and monitor each customers energy needs. GridLogic can be islanded or grid-connected, and its solar-powered storage ensures a steady and resilient power supply that is more impervious to extreme weather events than traditional generators.
SolarCity felt that there was a really strong market opportunity to meet a growing need, and to do so in a way that works with our companys key tenets, said Patwa, hinting at its customizable financing packages that have become SolarCitys stock-in-trade.
Financing for a product like this works best when it is totally customized, Jonathan Bass, Vice President of Communications at SolarCity, told pv magazine . Typically for a very large, almost utility-size project, we would customize financing. We have a tremendous amount of expertise for project financing. We have created funds to finance more than $5 billion in renewable energy assets, so we have a lot of experience creating project financing that suits a particular organizations needs. The product was launched in March, and so Bass is reluctant to identify any specific projects that have so far been agreed, but details of how the microgrid will work were explained in depth during GridLogics unveiling. Financing can be offered as a pay-as-you-go service, said Bass, who also revealed that the entire system can be interoperable with the grid, is entirely scalable by installing larger or smaller battery banks, and possesses a demand response component that enables system owners to manage renewable energy loads on a day-to-day basis by storing solar power off-peak and releasing it during peak load periods.
The aim, says Bass, is for customers to have complete faith in the GridLogic service to not only meet their energy demands, but to do so in a way that is inexpensive, reliable and environmentally friendly.
The carbon conundrum
When weathercasters warn of impending storms, thoughts inevitably turn to damage limitation in the regions rooted helplessly along the storms projected path. Mitigating the impact of a hurricane is one thing; making changes that may help reduce the frequency of such events in the longer term is a different approach altogether.
Solar-powered microgrids go some way towards doing both. The increase of severe weather events has created more demand for microgrids, certainly, said Bass. This is one of the reasons why GridLogic is of particular interest in the northeast U.S. If a hospital, municipality or an organization has a power outage, which leaves their constituents or patients in some distress, it creates an impetus to look into a solution to prevent that from happening in the future. In SolarCitys view, hurricanes such as Sandy are climate-change-related events, with Bass adding that not only does GridLogic address a need, but does so in a way that is also reducing carbon impact. It is a solution that tackles the broader problem and the more acute near-term problem as well, and our customers know this, he adds. For communities or municipalities with a vested interest in social good, the benefits of a solar-powered microgrid are obvious, says Patwa. In addition to providing that resiliency, GridLogic enables customers to adopt a larger portion of renewable, and so communities that have an interest in increasing their share of clean energy have a natural interest in these types of microgrids. According to Bass, the level of environmental understanding of each interested organization or municipality is usually a direct reflection of the views of the local community. Some are very aware of carbon impact, others less so, he says. You see that with utilities as well. Those utilities that tend to be more proactive in search of distributed energy resources are often the ones where their constituencies, their customers, and their ratepayers are very interested in these resources. A SolarCity poll conducted earlier this year found that support for solar cuts across all previously cemented divides, making PV far and away the most popular energy source in the U.S. It is a very diverse set of demographics that share this view, reveals Bass. It is not only liberals, Democrats and urban dwellers, but also rural dwellers, Republicans, and conservatives across the board people think that solar is the most important energy choice for the future.
Although a nationwide desire to promote renewable energy is yet to take hold at the grassroots level, authorities in some of the more populous states have begun to take the lead on developing not just cleaner energy, but also an energy landscape that has less reliance on the grid.One such initiative is New York States Reforming the Energy Vision (REV), a campaign to transition the states energy industry and regulatory practices
leading to changes that promote more efficient use of energy, deeper penetration of renewable energy sources, and wider deployment of distributed energy resources, such as microgrids, on-site power supplies, and storage, states the REV website.
As part of the program, New York State has granted $40 million to the development of microgrids, and has already been in discussions with SolarCity. We have seen similar forms of interest in New Jersey, Massachusetts and Maryland, said Patwa, and there is growing interest among the military and the Department of Defense. In 2014, the U.S. suffered 3,634 power outages an increase of 12% on 2013. The Department of Defense spends $2 billion a year on electricity, the majority of which is purchased from the central grid a central grid that is increasingly viewed as unnecessarily vulnerable.
While the northeast of the U.S. is proving the most demanding market domestically, SolarCity also believes that the GridLogic product could prove to be a pioneering avenue into international markets, triggering a global expansion that the company has so far kept on the back burner.
We definitely see GridLogic as an opportunity for SolarCity to provide a solution to customers internationally, said Patwa. We are seeing interest from island communities and from regions that do not have as strong a grid as the U.S. We are also seeing interest from places that want to have a higher adoption of renewables. The pull factors drawing regions towards microgrid solutions include lower-cost solar modules and battery storage, increasingly sophisticated management software, and a whole host of companies now ready and able to offer comprehensive funding packages designed to lower the financial and technical barriers to microgrid adoption.
On the push side, aging grid infrastructure, volatile finite fuel markets and the clear link between rising CO2 emissions and an increase in severe weather events is sending communities into the arms of distributed energy solution providers. Both of these push and pull factors are, however, underpinned by one inescapable, universal truth the Holy Grail of energy independence and security appears closer with each passing month, with solar power lighting every step of the way.
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