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Climate change poses a serious threat to power grids

Austin Wang

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It’s common knowledge that the oil and natural gas industries are bad for the environment, but the fact that oil and gas threaten electricity supply is much more counterintuitive. Climate change and the resulting extreme weather are a growing cause of blackouts, and as “dirty” energies contribute to climate change, they also indirectly threaten the stability of the power grids they supply.

Blackouts become a rapidly-growing threat

While it may seem far fetched that climate change has caused significant increases in outages, there has been a huge rise in blackouts over the past decade. A report by Climate Central finds that from the mid-1980s to 2012, blackout rates increased tenfold. From 2003 to 2014, an estimated 147 million people were affected by weather-related blackouts.

Storms, tornadoes, and extreme heat all cause blackouts, and climate change only increase the frequency of these events. As global warming continues to raise temperatures, blackouts will become more and more frequent.

Heatwaves make electric grids unusable

Today, heat waves are a serious threat to energy security. Yesterday, one of the largest electric grids in Texas declared an energy conservation emergency as temperatures rose above 100 degrees. As residents scrambled to use air conditioning, electricity demand spiked across Texas. The Energy Reliability Council of Texas suggested that residents reduce energy demand from 3 to 7 pm to prevent blackouts.

Similar energy emergencies could happen all across hot arid regions of the U.S. A study from UCLA’s Institute of Energy and Sustainability found that climate change could cause sweeping blackouts in LA. The combination of a growing population and rising temperatures could easily increase air conditioner use and trigger power grid shutdowns.

Blackouts during extreme heat can be incredibly dangerous as people struggle to cool their homes. In the 1995 Chicago heat wave, an estimated 739 people died due to extreme temperatures and power failures.

Detroit takes a stand to improve power grid security

In Michigan, the state with the most weather-related power outages, citizens are advocating for change. An estimated 800,000 Michigan residents suffer from weather-related blackouts every year and outages are expected to become more frequent.

Detroit has taken steps towards improving power grid security. Utility DTE Energy proposed a $4.2 billion dollar plan to modernize Detroit’s energy grid and make it more resilient to weather-related disasters. However, some argue against fixes that fail to target the root of the problem.

Instead, many activists in Detroit are advocating for the expansion of solar energy. Using solar panels to create community-based micro-grids would allow communities to continue using power during blackouts. Decentralizing the energy supply could also make utility bills cheaper and reduce citizens’ reliance on large utility companies. On a larger scale, solar energy would also slow climate change and the resulting extreme weather effects.

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Energy

9 Simple Steps To Help You Understand Your Energy Usage And Prepare For Outages

Swarnav Pujari

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Energy Usage

A round of blackouts just happened in California…and you can rest assured it won’t be the last. Preparing yourself and your home for the next one is important and requires you to understand exactly what your energy usage at home looks like. Having that insight will allow you you to make educated decisions as to what you need to keep yourself operational during these events.

Love it or hate it, PG&E and various other external variables have led California to the state the electric grid is in today; hence, making sure your home and properties are protected to operate without the grid is a necessary upgrade if you are in a potentially impacted region.

Now before you go ahead and assume the solution is purchasing solar, a battery storage system or even a backup home generator, we need to first understand how your home utilizes energy throughout the day and what your goals are when a future blackout occurs. In this case we are going to walk through the analysis you need to do before deciding to prep your home either for “electricity bill savings,” “energy resiliency,” or “energy efficiency”

This high level analysis period should only take you a maximum of 3 hours to complete end-to-end, and will arm you with valuable information going forward to make simple decisions as to what is and isn’t useful for your home going forward when it applies to energy generation and efficiency solutions.

Understanding how your home uses energy

Throughout the year, your energy bill fluctuates due to weather, changing lifestyle, and usage of the home. To dive into and really understand your home 365 days out of the year can be a time-consuming task that, even I wouldn’t subject myself to, which is something software analytic tools are there for. However, for your purpose we need to simply understand a high usage day at some point through the year.

To get to that stage, we need to first get access to your home’s interval data. If you are living in California, that should be easy enough to get access to.

Now, I realize that most people barely even know what they pay for electricity on a monthly basis, so here’s an easy way you can get access to interval data from your utility company – with PG&E being the example shown here.

Step 1: You must be using a digital billing system with your utility company. Most PG&E customers do pay their bill online, so this should be available to you already.

Step 2: Log into your portal and look for previous bills [PGE Resource A || PGE Resource B].

Step 3: Make sure you download your Interval Data & Past 12 Months Electricity Bills.

Step 4: Now that you have your interval data and utility bills, we need to pick one month out of the year that is worth analyzing to find the maximum amount of energy you have consumed in a day. This allows us to design and prepare for a “worst case” situation from which we can then work backwards from as opposed to expecting a lower daily usage and not being able to deliver enough power to run critical systems at your home.

Step 5: Look at the past 12 months of electricity bills and pick the month with the highest electricity bill. (Do not confuse or include gas charges with your total bill.)

Step 6: Plug in your data into this simple Google Sheet to quickly see which month is your highest usage.

Step 7: Now that we have picked a month, we need to open up the interval data you downloaded and find that 30-day time period and copy and paste the 30 day intervals into the Google Sheet to quickly find the day with the highest kWh usage. The sheet will also share with you the highest kW demand in your interval period, which will be useful later when looking for inverters for solar or evaluating backup generators.

Step 8: Now that you have the day you used the most energy, paste that day’s details into the graph section below the interval data in order to visually see how your home uses energy throughout the day.

Step 9: Optionally list in the section below what major appliances and equipment you have so that you can streamline conversations with companies that support you with energy efficiency and generation solutions as they can quickly pick out what you need to meet your short term needs.

Now, this is a very high-level analysis and doesn’t factor for the ever-changing weather conditions, lifestyle changes and equipment degradation that all impact your usage patterns and projected usage. The goal of this exercise is to help you understand your energy usage so that you can make educated buying decisions in a very saturated market full of unique and innovative energy generation & efficiency technologies.

Buying too much or too little of any of these solutions can impact your wallet and result in not achieving the exact results you wanted. Many times, companies will look to sell you a cookie cutter solution, but from experience, when it comes to energy generation & efficiency it tends not to be the exact same system over and over again.

Now on to the fun part: understanding how to use this information

Okay, so now that you have gone through organizing and inputting your data in we can begin the process of understanding exactly what you can do with this information when exploring one of the three major avenues, which may or may not be mutually exclusive.

Energy Efficiency: Focus on reducing energy consumption and load [reduce your max kW load at any given time].

Electricity Bill Savings: Focus on reducing the amount of energy consumed from the grid.

Energy Resiliency: Typically, decisions are driven off of what all you need to build out (storage and/or backup generator) to operate grid free for some duration of time.

Now when you open the “results” tab within the Google Sheet you should see a few simple results (note that the tab “Results Interval Data” is a part of the “results”).

Here are the key pieces of information you now have:

  • How much energy you use in a day.
  • The max amount of power you require at any given moment.
  • A chart outlining how your energy usage throughout the day.

From each of these key pieces of information we can infer and understand a few things about our home when considering optimizing or building out some infrastructure to achieve one of the three goals we mentioned above.

How much energy do you use in a day (the energy usage chart)

This information is extremely useful for evaluating the number of solar panels you would need on your roof to support your full day worth of energy usage. This also can help with scoping the size of a backup battery.

The maximum amount of power you require at any given moment

This is useful for both bill savings and when building in energy resiliency to your home. When you see the peaks in power draw, those are typically driven by heavy load equipment (HVAC, EV Chargers, etc) there are plenty of high level smart devices and solutions that can help you with reducing this peak load and, in turn, save you money. When considering solar, storage, or a backup generator, the amount of power you need delivered to your home at any given moment is a critical detail when picking an inverter or a generator.

The energy usage chart and its value

Simply the chart is a visual way to evaluate how your energy usage is throughout the day. Since you know and understand your lifestyle, you can infer at what times of the day your AC is turning on by looking at peaks in energy usage in those 15 minute intervals or realize that your EV was plugged in at night to charge when electricity was cheaper. These simple lifestyle changes can result in reducing your electricity spend on a monthly basis.

Conclusions about energy usage and future outages

Before going out and looking for solar companies to bid or looking to backup generators, make sure you understand how your home uses energy. The last thing you want to do is over-purchase or under-purchase when looking to achieve your core goal. There are many ways to save on electricity costs, reduce energy consumption and ensure that your home is operational even when the grid goes down. However, those who don’t understand their home energy usage will be completely in the dark, both figuratively and literally.



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Energy

Climate Change Dictates That The PG&E Power Outage Likely Won’t Be The Last

Maddie Blaauw

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PG&E intentional power outage

Rising temperatures don’t just mean increased natural disasters. As shown by the Pacific Gas and Utility Company (PG&E)’s recent intentional power outage in California, these woes are being handed straight down to consumers by companies.

Northern California’s “Public Safety Shutoff”

On Wednesday, the Pacific Gas and Utility Company (PG&E) cut power to over half a million customers in Northern California, the largest intentional power outage of its kind. The state is currently in the middle of prime wildfire season; any rain from spring to prevent the blazes has long since dried up in the heat of summer. 

The outage, or “public safety shutoff” as the company called it, was a financial decision from PG&E. California state law requires a utility company to pay for damages if a wildfire is started by its power lines. In 2017, PG&E was forced to declare bankruptcy after it could not pay for the damages of the Camp Fire. The Camp Fire remains the most destructive and deadliest wildfire in California to date. The fire burned over 150,000 acres and killed 85 people. With these statistics, it isn’t surprising to hear that the insurance settlement PG&E agreed to pay for this fire totaled $11 billion

Preventing another Camp Fire with a power outage

In an effort to prevent a second Camp Fire, PG&E shut off power to its customers using Wednesday and Thursday. The dry, hot, windy conditions made risks of power lines starting forest fires even higher than usual. To minimize the possibility of causing another $11 billion dollar fire, an estimated 700,000 customers went without power. A single “customer” can be a unit like a household or apartment complex. One can safely assume that the number of people without power on those two days was much higher. 

According to the California Department of Public Health, the outage affected 39 hospitals. Facilities like nursing homes and skilled nursing facilities had to find a way to function on reduced or no power. Most responded by increasing stores of critical supplies like oxygen tanks. At this point, only one reported death appears to have resulted from the lack of power. The death did not occur at a healthcare facility. 

By Friday, PG&E stated that while over 500,000 customers affected by the blackout had their power back on, almost 200,000 did not. 

Will massive intentional outages be more common in the future?

As stated above, the direct causes the company stated for initiating the blackout were dry, windy conditions. However, many scientists speculate that ultimately, climate change will increase the frequency of utility companies minimizing financial risks in this manner when weather conditions turn prime for trauma caused by powerlines. As found in a recent study from a collaboration between Columbia University and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, “since the early 1970s, warm‐season days warmed by approximately 1.4°C as part of a centennial warming trend, significantly increasing the atmospheric vapor pressure deficit (VPD).” The vapor pressure deficit is the difference between the amount of water actually in the air at a point in time and the total amount of water the air could hold. If this difference is larger, the air is drier.

Both of these changes in typical day-to-day weather conditions have increased the chances of wildfires occurring. The severity of the fires when they do start has also gone up: the state’s annual burned area has increased to be five times as great as it was in 1972, a statistic found by the same study. As human actions and policies currently stand, scientists do not forecast this trend of increasing temperature and dry conditions to stop. Because of this, the infrastructure of wildfire-prone places like California, especially electrical infrastructure, could soon be extremely outdated and unfit to prevent starting wildfires in adverse weather conditions.

The blackout in California this week was historical. In the future, these precautionary power outages may become increasingly standard.

Accommodating for the damage done

It is crucial and important that we take steps to prevent additional harm to the environment. This can take to form of more eco-friendly practices of major companies. Another possibility is the implementation of policy by governments to motivate or facilitate, financially or otherwise, a transition to less destructive practices. This topic is the main focus of current political debate.

However, when talking about how to stop climate change, the focus cannot just be on how to stop temperatures from increasing more. There must also be a discussion of how to adjust society to the effects that have already taken hold. The increase in the risk of electrical lines starting wildfires is just one example of this.

While discussion of action on climate change is certainly better than no discussion at all, ignoring the consequences we must already face would be irresponsible to those who suffer because of them.



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Australian government invests $11.1M AUS to power tourist island with solar and battery systems

Rich Bowden

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Lord Howe Island

Lord Howe Island, a small island situated 600 km off the Australian coast and a favorite with holidaymakers, is to flip the switch to renewable energy.

Currently reliant mostly on diesel power, the island has received a $AUS 11.1 million grant from the federal government’s Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) and the NSW government. The funding will go towards powering the island with a combined solar and battery energy system.

The renewable energy focus will remove much of the island’s previous reliance on diesel power.

Insights from Lord Howe Island will benefit other remote communities

The 1.2 MW solar PV array will be paired with a battery system with over 3.2 MWh capacity. ARENA CEO Darren Miller said lessons learned during the building of the project would be applied to the energy needs of other remote communities outside of the island.

“Lord Howe Island faces a unique set of challenges in supplying and recovering the costs of providing essential services to its community and in protecting Lord Howe Island’s natural environment,” he said. 

We are excited to see a renewable solution will be adopted that will significantly improve the sustainability of the power supply, improve energy security and reduce the impact of future fuel cost increases.”

“Knowledge gained from this project will be shared for the benefit of other isolated and remote communities,” he added.

Reliance on diesel fuel reduced by two-thirds

Peter Adams, the CEO of the trust that manages the island on behalf of the NSW government, said the announcement was a terrific result for Lord Howe Island, its visitors and residents.

“The announcement of this project is a fantastic result for the Lord Howe Island community and visitors alike. The island will be able to reduce its reliance upon imported diesel fuel for generating electricity. We are reducing the environmental impact of our energy supply while also improving energy security,” he said.

Adams added that the renewable energy system proposed for the island will help it to retain its important World Heritage status.

“We set a target to reduce our diesel use by two-thirds, and we believe we will not only meet that target but potentially exceed it. To achieve this result without detracting from the World Heritage values of Lord Howe Island is a result that everyone should celebrate.” 

NSW Minister for Energy and Environment, Matt Kean said the benefits of the renewable energy project for Lord Howe Island were “…both local and national, as every litre of diesel needs to be shipped to the island.”

The solar and battery system will be built on the island early next year and is expected to be completed by the middle of 2020.



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