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Climate change is driving the growth of complex digital systems

Those in Puerto Rico who are still without electricity as a result of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria could be forgiven for not seeing the crisis as “a big opportunity”. However, with the existing grid in tatters, there is the option to rebuild in a more resilient way than before.

Until now, diesel generators have generated the power on the island, with fuel shipped in at great expense (both financial and environmental) to supply a grid run with aged, degraded hardware. The local utility, billions in the red, has complained of a lack of funds for upgrades. Now, out of necessity, 21st Century solutions are proposed to get the island back on its feet, and the Puerto Rican government favors microgrids. These small-scale systems provide electricity from diverse, intermittent energy sources (such as solar and wind), and they are already helping remote locations and islands around the world to provide cleaner and reliable electricity. Puerto Rico’s plan would involve several regions to generate and store their own energy, reducing the likelihood of the entire island going dark during an extreme weather event. It would also reduce costs, as they use energy sources such as solar and wind, which on an island in particular, are cheaper than conventional sources.

The principle is similar to that of the internet: rather than running from a central source, it consists of several nodes. If one or more go down, the overall system survives. Today, consumers with solar roofs and other privately owned renewable energy generators are also becoming producers of electricity, feeding excess power back into the grid, a trend that is set to grow. Such developments are welcome and exciting and make sense for regions susceptible to extreme weather events. However, they bring new challenges: grids become extremely complex and traditional utilities can find it hard to adapt.

This trend is as true for European countries as it is for fragile island economies like Puerto Rico, which is why the Italian energy research center RSE (Ricerca sul Sistema Energetico) is testing digital technology that could tackle this complexity, making digitally connected energy grids the norm, and ensuring reliable, clean and low-cost power for all. The center’s researchers are collaborating with ABB to test our Ability™ solutions. The ABB Ability Emax 2 smart circuit breaker, for example, protects microgrids from overloading and connects to a cloud-based control system, which analyses the data and optimizes the process. Smart technology transforms a simple component into the “brain” of the system and manages the interaction between the microgrid and the main grid. The collaboration helps both ABB and RSE to develop new ideas for the next generation of microgrids.

Puerto Rico’s huge problems may be on another scale from those of for example Italy, but climate change and extreme weather affect all parts of the world. This is driving what ABB calls the Energy Revolution, and the traditionally conservative energy industry is waking up to the fact that business as usual is not an option.

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