Resilience in the Grid: What Texas Tells us About the Need for a New Energy Infrastructure
Our thoughts are with the people of Texas, where we have several long-term and newer clients. Our wishes for an expedient recovery are with them and their families, and all affected by last week’s disaster. Extreme weather events of this kind, and other natural disasters, highlight the vulnerability of our legacy energy grid system and many of our building systems.
We’ve been talking about rebuilding differently since hurricane Katrina – before that even – but despite the talk we’re still following age old paradigms. Parts of Texas have borne the brunt of major storms in the recent past, and this unprecedented big freeze has impacted a much larger majority of the state. The grid system weaknesses highlight and call into question how we design, re-design, operate and maintain regional and national grid systems as well as our building systems.
Buildings’ and homes’ HVAC and plumbing systems in Texas were not built to withstand such cold conditions, and with the grid not maintaining reliable electricity delivery, many failed. Experts are now busy uncovering issues that led to the outages. It wasn’t simply not having freeze protection on wind turbine components (wind comprises about a quarter of the grid’s supply), there were also freezing wellheads and pipelines for natural gas (about half of the mix of Texas’ grid supply). There are also issues with managing capacity and supply with variable demand, and real time adjusting to market signals and responses. We defer to the experts’ forensics regarding grid stability; studies of the failure events will no doubt create future action and mitigation plans.
Systemic Issues in the Built Environment
There are parallel issues within the built environment. Designing, building, operating, and maintaining systems the way we’ve done for decades is outdated. Changing building codes to mitigate for such extremes and adding enhanced weatherization may be necessary, but it’s like prescribing a long-term medication for an acute condition that could benefit from more immediate action.
Identifying systemic issues and symptoms that can create chronic failure and monitoring exceptions and adjusting to them in real time is more curative. While we can’t necessarily be regenerative and restorative with buildings and electricity grids like we can with agriculture and ecosystems, we can certainly be predictive, preventative and proactive to be more productive.
We’ve got to not only build resilience and contingency into the energy infrastructure centrally and on a distributed basis, we’ve got to understand the systemic economics around all of it and work them in appropriately, to address both commodities and transactional markets as well as human, societal impacts.
Grid Flexibility and the IOT
We have the technology to generate, store, control, and trade cleaner energy closer to where we need it. We deploy solar panels, battery storage, electric vehicles, smart appliances, and small wind systems connected via the Internet of Things (IoT). In blockchain we have a system for building trust into the millions of transactions that it will enable between connected entities.
Micro and fractal smart grids, which will be a crucial part of every city in the future, offer a more nimble, productive, cost-effective, and environmentally conscious approach to energy distribution. They are also, with specific relevance to Texas right now, resilient. They just need smart ways to fund them.
Highly efficient sub-metering, monitoring, analysis, reporting and troubleshooting systems have been around for over a quarter of a century and with newer technology that can take that information and couple it with market pricing and operational impacts, we can balance supply with demand any hour of any day. We’ve been fortunate to work with clients to develop, install, commission and monitor on-site energy, back-up generation and other assets through sophisticated building management systems that allow them to be part of the solution when grids are constrained. A need for increased funding for these projects still exists.
Many of our clients have played a crucial role in serving their communities in the wake of natural disasters, thanks to the on-site generation they’ve installed. Their buildings have become a hub where people can shop, feed first responding teams, charge phones and cars, and commune together for moral support.
Not all of our clients have had the capital to put toward these solutions. Some funded it with support from pilot programs and through creative energy infrastructure service agreements, where developers covered the capital cost for the equipment and the building user paid for the energy generated – at a rate on par or less than grid electricity rates. Some have benefitted from utility incentives to an extent, and others were fortunate to have a no interest on-bill repayment process.
Meeting the Upfront Cost
Texas has highlighted the need for collaboration among the right agencies, coalitions, business industry sectors and academia to quickly identify funding to cover the upfront costs of transforming the grid to this more flexible and reliable model.
The cost of upgrading aging and inefficient equipment (whether energy infrastructure grid, transmission or distribution OR building assets) and installing distributed resources where feasible needs to be met in a way that enables businesses to move forward quickly without large capital expenditure. New benefit/risk models may be deployed to help with funding, such that if these distributed resources help keep the utility’s grid reliable, they can be recovered through the rate base because all ratepayers benefit.
We are proud to be affiliated with some of the most progressive and committed people, businesses and organizations striving to elevate and transform the built environment.
GBI – Supporting Green Globes and #Better Buildings, Together
NASRC – Supporting #Advancing Natural Refrigerants
DOE – Supporting #Better Buildings Alliance and Zero Net Energy Buildings
NREL – Supporting the Commercial Buildings Group/Whole Building
EPA – Supporting Energy Star and Energy Efficient Building Portfolios
USGBC – Supporting Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design
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