Forbes article:New York, Black Swans, Blackouts and Anti-Fragile Grids.
New York, Black Swans, Blackouts and Anti-Fragile Grids
Nature happens. So you plan for it. New York’s Governor Cuomo agrees and laid out the case in an OpEd, We Will Lead on Climate Change, in the New York Daily News.
Don’t be spoofed by the OpEd’s headline. The Governor doesn’t talk about fixing the climate. He focuses on the necessity of fixing infrastructure, including the electrical grid, so it can better deal with Mother Nature. Amen.
Governor Cuomo does make the de rigueur observation that we are facing “extreme weather” in a “new normal.” One can be agnostic as to whether the normal is new or more extreme. Few who experienced Hurricane Sandy care. But all would agree with the Governor that the “next generation’s infrastructure must be able to withstand another storm.”
Let’s hope though that Cuomo’s investigating Commissions focus on what to do next, not who to blame. My view on where to place blame is summarized in an OpEd (Our Gridlocked Grid) my colleague and I wrote for another New York newspaper. The forensics matter. Millions were blacked out by Sandy that didn’t need to be. And thousands were in the dark far too long.
Electric power for urban areas is the fundamental infrastructure on top of which the rest operate. It’s more than lights and heat; it’s pumping gasoline, water, and sewage, keeping food cool and moving elevators. And it’s citizen and emergency communications, and community smartphone apps that help people help each other. The electric dependency of every aspect of modern society is hypertrophied in cities.
There are those who embrace the idea that you can’t do much planning in the face of so-called “black swan” events such as Sandy. But Stanford University engineering professor and risk expert Elisabeth Paté-Cornell says that black swans and “perfect storms” are “lame excuses for bad risk management.” She notes that pretty much every threat from cyber terrorists to Mother Nature is within the scope of our imagination.
When it comes to managing the risks from major storms you can do things like bury power lines. But as any utility guy will tell you, it is not clear that would alleviate your specific local grid’s outage risks. Manhattan’s power lines are buried. The grid went down because water buried substations. More reliability would have come from water-proof substations, building-centric Bloom fuel-cell power and local micro-grids. For many homeowners more reliability could come from small back-up generators like those from Generac [NYSE:GNRC] – see the New York Times for a lengthy post-Sandy encomium to the company.
What about cell phones, the network for which disappears alarmingly quickly after a black-out? Back in the day the plain-old-copper land networks were self powered and seldom failed. But wireless networks are the future – a third of households no longer have land-lines, a share that keeps rising. Power, not bandwidth, has become the central challenge for wireless.
You could airdrop hand chargers to communities, but if the cell towers are dark they’ll only be able to play games on their smart phones or use them as flashlights. You can install a lot more on-site back-up generators at cell towers, but how do you fuel them, and how do you make sure they’ll start? The answers to the latter challenges, by the way, are found in information systems from companies like Omnimetrix [NASDAQ:ACFN] that remotely monitor back-up generators.