Making Sense of The Texas Power Outages

by Aamir Paul
Mar 5, 2021 5:15 PM ET

The Texas grid came within “seconds and minutes” of a grid outage that could’ve lasted months. I think it’s time to raise the sense of urgency around grid modernization and resiliency.

I wrote about this back in October 2019, when vast swathes of California were gripped by proactive grid shutdowns. And although the two states’ outages may have been caused by different weather extremes, many of the infrastructure solutions remain the same. I’ll talk about two of them in this post.

The challenge: A grid even Edison would recognize

As climate change accelerates extreme weather events, infrastructure ages, and rising populations demand more energy, the big question both utilities and their customers must face is this: How do we keep energy flowing reliably, safely, and sustainably?

To answer this question, it helps to consider what’s changed, and what hasn’t, since 1977, the year I was born. Telecommunications technology is nearly unrecognizable and, more broadly, information technology has experienced breakthroughs in every field. But electrical infrastructure? Even Thomas Edison would recognize it.

Now’s the time to work together to transform the way we produce, transmit, and consume electricity. Although there are a few magical, pie-in-the-sky ideas out there that are certainly interesting to discuss, I want to share a few pragmatic ways we can start.

The solutions: Digitalization, decentralization, and decarbonization

The first step: Harness IoT connectivity to monitor critical infrastructure assets like the smart grid.

To do this, we can consider the spiritual insight, “everything is connected,” as a strategic objective. The smart grid is already home to billions of smart devices. But just because we’ve deployed these devices doesn’t mean we’re getting the most out of them.

Meters, relays, and sensors need to be connected to sophisticated analytics and management tools. With these smart grid solutions, you can do more than pinpoint outages. You can automate fault detection, streamline proactive maintenance, and thus enhance performance and reliability. The video below shows how smart grid solutions bolster resilience during extreme weather.

The second step is to promote decentralized alternatives such as microgrid technology. Microgrids work seamlessly alongside the grid to provide redundant power to buildings, industrial sites, and critical infrastructure like hospitals and data centers. They also encourage renewable energy integration, driving decarbonization efforts.

The proposition of building and operating a microgrid may sound daunting, but it shouldn’t be. With Energy as a Service (EaaS) financing models, organizations can deploy microgrids for zero upfront costs and no responsibility to build, operate, or maintain them. That’s made it possible for many companies and organizations to gain access to resilient, decarbonized backup power.

Successful use cases of digitalized, decentralized, and decarbonized infrastructure

I’ve seen the success of microgrid technology at critical sites around the country. Here are just three:

  • In the aftermath of destructive wind storms, Montgomery County, Maryland bolstered resiliency by deploying two microgrids and modernized power distribution systems in their critical sites. Using EaaS, the county avoided capital expenses.
  • The Port of Long Beach, CA, the second-busiest port in the U.S., is on a mission to zero emissions and high power reliability. A new microgrid will integrate renewable energy and support the port’s Joint Command and Control Center.
  • JFK Airport’s Terminal One renovation will feature EaaS microgrids through our joint venture with the Carlyle Group, called AlphaStruxure.

To replicate these successes across the country will require all players to work together. Building new infrastructure and improving on current systems is challenging, especially when utilities are expected to make these changes without downtime and amidst an ever-increasing demand for energy. Using IoT and decentralized power minimizes these hurdles and thereby accelerates us into a world where the California and Texas outages become a thing of the past.

Building a grid fit for our children’s children

We at Schneider orient our business around future generations. It’s part of our commitment to go carbon neutral by 2025. It’s why we were ranked by Corporate Knights as the world’s most sustainable company in 2021. And it’s a part of our goal of creating a resilient, 21st century-ready grid.

I also invite you to take a seat at the table as we continue this conversation. How are you addressing the challenges of improving infrastructure? What technologies are you eager to explore? Share your experience, hurdles, and hopes in a comment below.