From mobile power houses to electrical grid resilience

Chile, Atacama Desert, 1700 metres above sea level

When power management in extreme conditions becomes a standard answer to climate change disasters

On January 23, 2014 ABB announced major orders from Sierra Gorda SCM to provide electrical equipment in pre-fabricated containers designed to ensure reliable power distribution to Chile’s largest copper producing region at an elevation of 1,700 meters (m).

These pre-fabricated metal enclosures, also known as power houses, container e-rooms, switch rooms, mobile substations or E-houses, can be configured anywhere. Not only are they compact, modular, cost-effective, easy to move and install, they are also made to withstand extreme climate and environmental conditions such as temperature variations (+50°C or -50°C), altitudes up to 6,000m, ice storms, ocean storms, floods, seismic activity, and even explosions. ABB provides a whole range of E-house solutions including integrated GIS up to 420kV.

The scope and diversity of their application is becoming more wide spread across many industries and institutions. For instance, oil and gas companies use them for their FPSO (floating production, storage and offloading) vessels and their offshore processing platforms. In the rail industry, they form a vital part of the traction power supply system, which feeds electricity from the power grid to trains via overhead catenary. Utilities use them to connect offshore wind farms and photovoltaic farms in deserts to the grid and information technology companies use them to power and cool their datacenters.

But in my opinion, this is just the beginning of a wide range of uses. Such mobile substations are becoming more valuable as the world strives to cope with extreme weather conditions especially now that they have a smaller footprint, have more flexible designs and are better able to conform to local and international standards.

According to the American National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the increased incidence of severe weather has become one of the most significant threats posed by climate change (USGCRP 2013).

Disruptions caused by extreme weather conditions, such as hurricane Sandy in the United States of America, typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines and more recently the severe ice and snow storms in North America, serve to remind us of the need for innovative power solutions to help maintain power supplies in the face of adversity. In the future we are likely to encounter many more such weather related catastrophes and these are likely to be more severe and cause greater disruption as more of our populations connect to the grid and live in urban environments.

By 2050, it is thought that over 70 percent of the world’s population will live in cities, which not only means we must develop smarter technologies to help keep pace with the change, but we must also do so while keeping carbon emission down in ever more unpredictable weather conditions.

It is in this market that I see the big potential for E-houses, especially in the construction and housing sectors. I am convinced such mobile, tailor-made solutions will provide some of the answers to tomorrow’s climate change challenges, especially since these units routinely operate in extreme environments.

Providing immediate restoration of power

In “normal” conditions, E-houses are already used by utilities as temporary solutions to minimize power outages during planned maintenance and to fast-track connections for new generation while planning permission for a permanent substation is obtained. But they also have great utility for rapid power restoration after a catastrophic storm.  The mobile E-house is a perfect interim low-cost solution for cities or districts to supply power to inhabitants, restore power to hospitals, street lighting, and to help maintain communications, and numerous other vital services. Their modular design means they are suited to road, sea or air transportation, which means they can be brought rapidly to where they are needed, and can usually be installed and made ready for operation within two days. Furthermore, they can be combined with renewable energy solutions such as portable and modular solar panels, LED rechargeable lamps, rechargeable battery packs, and much more, providing a versatile and comprehensive stand-alone post-disaster solution to major power failures.

Preventive approach towards a smarter and more resilient electrical grid

We have the technology to respond to emergency grid failures, but perhaps it would be more prudent to ensure our grids are more resilient to the increasingly severe weather conditions we are experiencing today. There are many ways to improve the resilience of the electrical grid, including pole maintenance, vegetation management, the use of mobile transformers and substations, and the creation of mutual assistance groups, which not only provides advanced recovery capabilities, but options to improve flexibility and control as well as anticipating and assessing risks.

For instance, upgrading poles and structures with stronger materials or placing cables underground all help to reduce susceptibility to wind damage and reduce the chances of damage due to vegetation. In case of floods, substations and other facilities can be elevated or relocated. Additional transmission lines help increase power capacity and provide greater control of energy flows by providing the flexibility to bypass damaged lines and reduce the risk of cascading failures.

In addition to these precautions we could also make better use of microgrids as a complementary solution. Microgrids make use of power electronics and energy storage technologies to reduce the generating capacity required during peak load periods, while providing the ability during a utility grid disturbance to run in isolation.

During super-storm Sandy, when most of lower Manhattan was in the dark, the New York University (NYU) campus at Washington square shone like a beacon in the night, thanks to its microgrid! The on-site power generation and distribution management systems saved NYU from a blackout.

Today, such stand-alone microgrids powered by distributed generation systems remain very expensive and are challenging to install, but the economic benefits are obvious when compared to the overall cost of a power outage. The time has come to build up our ”microgrid” business model and position it as a key element of both smart grid and smart city initiatives.  In the current economic climate this means coordinating public-private investments from utilities, technology providers, banks, universities, governments, and non-governmental organizations to ensure that the right infrastructure is installed in regions most at risk to climate change.

Image credit for snowstorm in US: ptwo under a cc license via Flickr

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Juliane Lenzner

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