Smart Grids and Distributed Energy for Disaster Resilience

Typhoon Ursula hit during Christmas time and left several provinces devastated. Its impact includes damaged power supply structures, leaving many many Filipinos without electricity for weeks.

In Aklan, power yet has to be restored three weeks after Ursula made its landfall. According to the Aklan Electric Cooperative or Akelco, the firm is targeting normalization of power supply in some parts of the province by January 25, almost a month since Ursula’s arrival.

Unfortunately, despite round-the-clock efforts to restore electricity, only 60 percent of 381 villages’ power supply has been restored. Power restoration is a massive undertaking in the province given Ursula’s destruction. There were 1144 electric posts either damaged or destroyed. “Several of our primary and backbone lines were destroyed or damaged, that is why full restoration is taking time,” an Akelco engineer was quoted in a news report.

Naturally, being without electricity is hurting the businesses in the province. According to the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI) the micro, small and medium enterprises are the ones suffering most from the lack of electricity in the areas as generator sets needed to power their businesses cost a lot of money to operate.

ursula

Electric posts felled by Typhoon Ursula in Capiz. Photo c/o inquirer.net

Similarly, electric cooperatives in other parts of Visayas are also begging consumers for patience as restoration of power takes time. An executive from Samar II Electric Cooperative is appealing to consumers for more patience and understanding. The cooperative is being criticized for its inability of the cooperative to bring back electricity. The linesmen have been at the receiving end of harsh comments, too, prompting the executive to explain that the cooperative has to also look out for the safety of linemen as well.

“These are stories that sometimes never made it in the news. We don’t want to make grandstanding, what we want is for people to know how our linemen risk their lives just to get the power back to your respective houses and properties.” 

Unfortunately, we are a country that is and will be repeatedly hit by extreme weather events. The Philippines will always experience the wrath of natural disasters. This means that Filipinos will have to endure the effects of natural calamities like being without power. If we can recall, it took almost six months for power to be restored after Super Typhoon Yolanda devastated the Visayas region in 2013. It was reported that six linemen died in the restoration process.

For the power sector, this means investing in infrastructures such as distributed generation and smart grids. 

The traditional model of power supply and distribution is proving to be detrimental and even deadly for us Filipinos. Let us keep in mind that central power production means that energy has to be carried via power lines spanning long distances. This means any damage to a single line leaves thousands of homes without power.

In extreme weather disturbances like typhoons, dozens of power lines are compromised simultaneously. The transmission company and distributors then work double-time to determine which lines are affected and which broken ones should be fixed first. Only then can the crews and linemen start the physical side or power restoration.

This is where smart grids and distributed energy come in. Since power is produced in many places, only a handful will be affected if the facilities of a power producer are badly damaged. Even then, those being supplied by the affected power producer may not even experience a power loss. Thanks to the smart grid, electricity can be sourced from another generation node so those affected by the compromised line or power generator can be supplied by another generator.

This is the advantage of moving away from the traditional way of power transmission and generation. Distributed energy along with smart grids can make an area extremely resilient from the wrath of natural calamities.

The traditional model of central production, transmission and generation are slowly being replaced by distributed energy and smart grids. And rightly so, as explained by Josiah Nelson, Chairman, and CEO at Trolysis, a renewable energy company producing on-site, on-demand hydrogen power from aluminum and water.

“Not many people realize this, but in the majority of the country, if there’s a compromised line or a power outage, the power company has no way of knowing until customers pick up the phone and tell the utility that they’ve lost power. This is a horribly backwards way of detecting outages and is a perfect example of the decades-old technology our grid is built on.”

Aside from smart grids and distributed energy, our government should also consider underground conduits that can carry power and even telecommunication cables. Naturally, underground conduits are more unlikely to be damaged during typhoons.

We cannot change our geographical location, nor can we prevent typhoons or other natural disasters from happening. Neither can we change the fact that power restoration with our existing facilities is a dangerous task. What we can do is increase the country’s resilience against natural disasters. This means shifting away from decades-old technology and making way for new ones. Doing so requires acknowledgment of our need for such, proper regulation and more investments.

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