Last month's blackout in the Northeast was a big surprise to everyone. No one expected such a disaster to strike in the 21st century — especially in a country like the United States, which takes pride in its infrastructure. Combining brain power with advanced technologies, power utility companies in New York and neighboring states thought they had solved the problems of 1965 and the late 1970s forever. But, as the events of Aug. 14 showed, nothing is infallible. A confluence of events can create a disaster to make a fool of even the best.
What surprised me the most was the lack of use of alternative sources and standby power supplies during the blackout. Stories abounded of elevators stopped between floors and subway trains stranded between stations. Airports shut down, and cold storages melted. Flight delays were rampant. Plus, imagine the condition of those who were sick or not as healthy as others. The majority of businesses were closed because of no power. The entire Northeast came to a standstill.
Fortunately, hospitals and similar emergency wards had back-up power to continue functioning for few hours in the event of a blackout or brownout. Likewise, mission-critical computer centers exploited uninterruptible power supplies to stay running for a few hours. Such institutions cannot take any risk, and plan accordingly for all types of conditions. So why didn't those managing subways, elevators, skyscrapers, corporate offices, schools, universities, businesses, manufacturers and other places consider alternative sources and backup supplies in case of such a situation? Although Aug. 14 was a rare occurrence, local outages, blackouts/brownouts and sags are common due to faults in a local transformers, circuit breakers, or short circuits. In fact, it's not uncommon to experience such conditions during thunder and snowstorms.
While there is no industry mandate or regulatory compliance that compels users to include alternative technologies and back-up sources in public transportation, buildings, schools, universities, business facilities, homes, and the like, it's time to think along those lines. Alternative technologies such as fuel cells, solar power, microturbines, static turbine switches, and battery-backed UPS systems have improved dramatically over the decades to become cost-effective and reliable.
A recent report on “The North American Market for Distributed Generation” by market research firm Venture Development Corp. (VDC) suggests that distributed generation (DG) and grid power alternative technologies (GPA) should become part of a new set of industry infrastructure technologies. According to VDC's report, DG technology is located close to the end user, and that generates power for an indefinite period of time, under 10MW in capacity. Technologies that fall into this category include stationary fuel cell systems, microturbines, small gas turbines, photovoltaic/solar power, and wind turbines. There's also ride-through technology, located close to the end user, which stores energy kinetically, chemically, electrically, magnetically, or potentially to provide power to the end user in case of a primary power disturbance or failure for a finite period of time. This VDC report identifies flywheels and rotary technologies, battery UPS, supercapacitors/ultracapacitors, and superconducting magnetic energy storage (SMES) as ride-through technologies.
It's time the power transmission and distribution industry, as well as the government, began working closely with DG and GPA developers and suppliers. They must construct a plan to make alternative technologies and backup sources a part of the overall power mix, so that the chaos and confusion of Aug. 14, 2003, is never repeated.