Entergy Corp. confessed that actors testified for it three years ago before the New Orleans City Council, even though a third party had employed and paid them. The utility requested a gas-fired “peaking plant” to avoid mass outages during severe hurricanes. The entire episode was a joke and made worse because lights were still on after Hurricane Ida.
Peaking plants, which are used to meet excessive electricity demand, require high-powered, long-distance transmission lines. While the 128-megawatt unit can produce electricity during the summer heat, it did not perform well during Hurricane Ida. This occurred 16 years to the date after Hurricane Katrina decimated the city. Entergy is still trying to assess the damage, even though 1 million or more have been without electricity.
All this begs question as to why Entergy and New Orleans didn’t follow the lead of New York State and California after Superstorm Sandy and a host of wildfires ravaged their respective communities. These states now rely more heavily on distributed energy assets like onsite generation and battery storage. They also have localized microgrids that can provide power to campuses or buildings. These assets can be combined to reduce strain on the leading network, particularly during extreme weather conditions. California’s grid operator deems distributed energy resources “essential.”
Because of the increasing severity of climate change, we need emergency electricity to power our local communities. This plant was in commission for about a year and failed. It failed catastrophically. The power plant will be useless if the transmission lines have been cut. The vulnerability to hurricanes is much lower for microgrids or virtual power plants. They are reliable and resilient.
It is essential to be clear that there are two types. The first involves induction, which creates the voltage by interconnecting to the grid. The voltage pushes electrons through the wires. The second type is the “black starter” generator, which can “excite itself” to generate the required voltage. Entergy has built this generator. This is because the additional cost is not worth it without functioning transmission lines. Also, even if Entergy could have turned on its “black start” generator, it could not send electrons to homes, businesses, or other places.
Eight transmission lines serve new Orleans. Ida managed to take out all of them. There are 200 megawatts of generators located in the city that keep hospitals, industrial sites, and its convention center running during large-scale outages. Voltus takes the onsite generation, battery storage, and demand response and configures them with its software program to form a virtual power plant. Let’s get to the point:
It simply involves the orchestration and coordination of millions upon millions of assets to manage the electricity supply. This power can be redirected back into the local distribution network and transported to homes, businesses, and other locations. It can also be used as a deferred investment in capital projects such as peaking plant investments. This is how it works: A central coal-fired unit might generate 1,000 megawatts. It is also connected via a long-distance transmission network. This makes it vulnerable to cyberattacks as well as natural disasters.
However, a distributed energy system (or virtual power station) would have 200,000 components. Or, 200,000 5kilowatt batteries would be equivalent to one power station with 1,000 megawatts. Although one battery might fail, there are 200,000 that can be operated from faraway locations.
Although virtual power plants or microgrids can use local distribution systems, they do not have to use long-distance transmission links. Delivery may be affected if distribution lines are down. However, microgrids export power only to particular circuits, so it is improbable that the whole system will fail.
Voltus’ Dixon said that an onsite generator operates when power is lost. “We can connect them all to the internet and remotely turn them off and on. It takes the strain off the grid, and it keeps power flowing for mission-critical facilities. The virtual power plant that New Orleans would create would allow these same facilities to upgrade their generators in a microgrid while also providing resilience for themselves and other businesses.
Take the Marine Corps Air Station at Miramar with a microgrid: it uses landfill gas and solar photovoltaics combined with energy storage. Resiliency is about being able to bounce back from power cuts as soon as possible. In the case of a major catastrophe, such as a wildfire, the base should keep the lights on for at most 14 days. The station had additional electricity to share with its neighboring community last summer during California’s heatwave.
Michael Burr is the director at the Microgrid Institute. He believes that investments in renewable energies can be combined with battery storage and microgrids to increase resilience.
What lessons can Entergy have learned between 2005, when Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, and 2021 when Ida attacked it? It is about quickly restoring power without threatening lives.
To make it easier for decision-making, the corporate structure collapses. Power is then transferred to a centralized disaster response team, empowered with authority to execute the utility’s mission. So, “war rooms,” or meeting rooms, are created, and critical personnel meets. The group decides together if resources will be deployed, and if so, where and how much.
Entergy created 40-50 staging zones during Hurricane Katrina. In total, 1,200 workers came from across the country to help with the storm and calm customers’ fears. Call centers in the Southeast received over 200,000 calls that day.
The hurricane knocked out more customers than any other storm. Over 3,000 miles of transmission lines were cut, while 30,000 miles in distribution lines were damaged, and 263 substations failed.
Utilities must also replay each natural disaster to improve their performance the next time. In particular, utility reviews which regions requested assistance and whether the aid was timely and safe. It’s all about getting every cog working correctly and then sharing this information across the industry so others can benefit. Ida might have taught Entergy about 21st-century energy technologies.
Dixon says, “In 2005, we didn’t even own smartphones.” “Distributed energies were still in their infancy. It’s an entirely different world today. We now have the Internet of Things, which can create a cloud of resources that can be used to create extraordinary value. Voltus alone has dispatched hundreds of virtual power plants this year.
New Orleans will be suffering for several weeks from Ida. But, distributed energy resources might have prevented that.