Smarter, Scrappier, and More Sustainable: Energy Resilience
Formed in conversation with Sustainability, Resilience is the idea that in a future of more frequent severe weather events, long-term global climate change, and geopolitical turmoil, we should restructure our major cultural systems to not only tread lightly on the earth, but to be resilient to disaster, and more adaptable to unexpected changes.
Resilience is predicated on the fact that the major systems structuring our lives are static and fragile. Our transportation, food system, and electrical grid, for example, are all massive, complicated systems that we rely upon daily, but which are prone to break during disaster events such as hurricanes, drought, or fuel shortages. Specifically in this blog post, I’d like to talk about how resilience applies to energy.
Resilience dictates that in a time of great uncertainty, the most important characteristic that our major systems can have is the ability to adapt. When it comes to energy, this means that we need to become more efficient, more diverse, and more adaptable.
The push to integrate new technologies into our haphazard and aging electrical grid is largely an effort to make our electrical distribution more resilient. Increased visibility of real-time data from the grid allows operators to have more granular and immediate control over generation, distribution, and demand.
Integration of two-way communication: connecting grid operators to end users, generators, and transmission points enables them to react quickly to correct for outages and imbalances.
Greater control over demand: Demand-side Management technology connects customers to operators, allowing operators to directly reduce demand during peak hours while providing financial incentives for customers
With increased control over the grid, operators will be able to predict, respond to, and prevent blackouts more effectively. Blackouts have devastating economic and social consequences. A resilient electrical grid reduces our susceptibility to disaster events by giving us the tools to respond to such events in real time.
Spread it out: Decentralized Energy
Large, centralized power plants and distribution infrastructure is at a greater risk of catastrophic failure than smaller, decentralized infrastructure, because there are more “choke points” where disaster can strike. The current grid is vulnerable to disaster due to near-exclusive reliance on massive power generation facilities. The rise of smaller, often renewable, energy generation facilities is one way to spread out the risk of failure, and grow a more resilient energy system.
Renewable facilities like wind and solar generation can, and often must be smaller-scale, creating the opportunity for decentralized, local production. Note the image to the right, showing decentralized wind installations in Denmark.
On-site cogeneration (Heat and Electricity) for neighborhoods, campuses, and industrial complexes increases on-site efficiency and further diversifies energy supply.
Tougher, Safer, Better
A resilient system is one that can bounce back from disaster and keep running in the face of consistently unpredictable risk. As a concept, it helps me to ground my thinking in the real risks that we face moving forward. I get frustrated by greenwashing as much as anyone, and chances are our energy future won’t be all plant sprouts and sunny skies. For me, checking in with the idea of resilience once in a while helps to balance optimism about exciting new tech solutions with understanding that the push toward efficiency and sustainability carries real weight.
For More Information on the Smart Grid and Energy Resilience, check out these great resources:
Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before it Conquers Us by Maggie Koerth-Baker
The Smart Grid: an Introduction prepared for the DOE by Litos Strategic Communication
Powering America’s Energy Resilience by The Center for National Policy