Japan, Disaster, and the Smart Grid

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I have been reluctant to join the fray on what the recent Japanese disasters might mean to this or that issue. With active clients in Tokyo, these tragedies have had a personal effect, and my first thoughts have been for the personal well-being of these clients, their families, and their colleagues. So while the most important observations are surely to be found in the resilience of the people of Japan, there are a few items worth considering within our comparatively small smart grid universe.

The highest profile issue is how the ongoing struggles at the Fukushima nuclear plant will impact the budding “nuclear renaissance” assumed for the United States and around the world. NRG Energy has already scaled back its efforts on a South Texas nuclear plant expansion (in which Japan’s TEPCO is an investor/participant). With the NRC declaring that it will review all existing and proposed plants in light of the Fukushima disaster, many believe it is 1979 all over again, when the Three Mile Island incident put the industry into a deep freeze.

The problem this time around is that while it may not be popular to admit it, nuclear expansion is the closest thing to a silver bullet to displace the 45 percent of U.S. electricity currently generated by carbon-spewing coal. The smart grid will need to get much smarter, much faster, if we want renewable energy resources to pick up even bigger slice of pie.

The other observation is the inherent vulnerability of large, centralized power generation. These natural disasters have created an instant and severe electricity shortage within perhaps the world’s most electricity dependent nation, with world-wide impact. This is a shock to what has been the world’s most reliable grid. (As an aside, it is worth noting how resilient the rest of Japan’s grid has been to the effects of the huge earthquake, which is quite remarkable). Would a grid with high penetrations of distributed renewable generation, organized as a collection of semi-autonomous microgrids, with large amounts of fine-grained demand response capability, fared better in the face of such a disaster? It is entirely possible, which is why the military is leading so much of the efforts around these technologies.

Of course, a countervailing observation can be made as well. The smart grid is all about leveraging communications and IT to derive greater efficiencies through real-time, fine-grained, control and management of distributed, ever-changing, generation sources and load sinks. This is really nothing short of a large scale, complex, resilient, semi-autonomous control system. Unfortunately, the best-in-class complex, resilient, semi-autonomous control systems in existence today are in nuclear plants. Ironically, it appears the key failure on the Fukushima disaster was a lack of electricity to run the control systems (i.e. cooling) to shut down the plant. Could we be setting ourselves up for a similar kind of “deadly embrace” in the smart grid, where we need electricity to run the controls, but we need the controls to run the electricity?

Much of this is magnified if we consider that it may not take a tremendous natural disaster on the scale of the recent earthquake and tsunami to cause such centralized (or distributed) disruptions. Most believe that cyber attacks could today accomplish the same or worse.

In any case, it is hard to imagine that any other region of the world could respond to such a challenge with any more grace and fortitude as the Japanese are doing today. May we never face that challenge again.

Article by Bob Gohn, appearing courtesy the Matter Network.

About Author

Walter’s contributions to CleanTechies over the past 4 years have been instrumental in growing the publications social media channels via his ongoing editorial and data driven strategies. He is the founder and managing director of Sunflower Tax, a renewable energy tax and finance consultancy based in San Diego, California. Active in the San Diego clean technology community, participating in events sponsored by CleanTech San Diego, EcoTopics, and Cleantech Open San Diego, Walter has also been a presenter at numerous California Center for Sustainability (CCSE) programs. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego School of Law where he teaches a course on energy taxation and policy.

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