The first article in this series covers the definitions of the terms fragile, robust, resilient, and antifragile, and introduces how these concepts apply to systems and infrastructure.

Why do we need Distributed Energy Systems (DES)?

Without going too far into details, we need better energy systems. There are many reasons and many examples of why this is true. Let’s look at just one data point to simplify the picture. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) estimates power outages cost the U.S. economy $150B each year. For contrast, the U.S. median annual income in 2019 was about $40,000. At that rate, a person would have to work for 3,750,000 years to pay for the cost of one year of U.S. outages.

An annual cost of $150B is significant. That cost, though, is only the cost of unserved loads. That number does not include, for example, losses of business, property, forest, homes and lives from fires caused by power system failures. Because of the fires caused by their equipment (over 1,500 fires in under 6 years), the California utility PG&E has paid out more than $25B in damages, filed for bankruptcy with more than $30B in unfunded liabilities, and pled guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter. That’s a single utility company in a single state of a single country. Expanding the view to take in all economic losses caused by unserved loads and other power grid problems, worldwide, the cost to society is extraordinary.

This information is not complete and isn’t trying to be. It’s only giving a hint at the scale of the problems we have with our aging energy systems. In short, the more you look for signs of fragility of the existing grid, the more weaknesses you will find. Fortunately, Distributed Energy Systems (DES) offer a solution that is cheaper than the problems they solve. Because 90% of outages happen due to failures at the distribution level of the grid, only DES can fully address the issue of outages, as well as reducing other harmful grid failures such as those causing fires.


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How does a Smarter Grid become Resilient?

DES can keep the power on, and can avoid causing fires. They can be carbon-free (though not all are), and they can be cheaper than traditional grid power (though not all are). They can also be much “smarter” and more efficient. How is that? And why should we care?

The brief introduction to the costs of outages and system failures, above, describes some of the problems of the legacy grid, sometimes called “Grid 1.0”, “the centralized grid”, or my personal favorite, “last century’s grid”. The difference from the legacy grid is that DES put power supplies where they are needed, at the point of end use. By being where they are needed instead of located at a distance the way large power plants are, DES can keep power on for the buildings they support, and can be installed without the overhead wires that are causing fires. DES can solve the problems we’re already seeing.

What about unprecedented events? Most of the costs of outages are considered normal (though these costs, especially relating to extreme weather, are increasing). “Normal” problems like typical power outages are what Nassim Taleb would call “white swan events”, that is, they come as no surprise based on what we already know, and we can estimate their impact. A “black swan event”, on the other hand, is something that is very surprising because we haven’t ever seen it before, and it also carries a massive impact. You might call some of the powerful storms of the past decade black swan events; before Hurricane Sandy, we had never seen New York City flooded and without power, in some areas for weeks, and the storm cost society around $70B. Can DES help with a black swan event like an unprecedented storm, or even an attack?

Yes. One DES alone can support one facility, but many DES interconnected can make the whole grid “smarter” and more resilient. DES can communicate with each other, identify and shut off problem areas, reroute power, and make the overall grid responsive to changing conditions and needs. DES are the fundamental building block of a resilient grid. With enough DES installed throughout the grid, power can be restored very quickly even following targeted or widespread, massive disruption. Even under normal circumstances, DES can pay for themselves in savings. In extreme events, DES can help a smarter grid isolate problems, keep power on for critical services, and return to full functioning far faster than the legacy grid could ever hope to achieve. We don’t know what the rest of this century will bring. But we can be quite confident that last century’s grid isn’t good enough to handle it. We need more DES.

What would it mean for power systems to go beyond Resilient and become Antifragile?

In the energy sector, we always talk about making the grid more resilient. As described above, grid resilience (the ability to recover quickly from a major outage) is a minimum requirement, as our lives and businesses have become almost completely dependent on electricity. But is resilient the best we can do? What would antifragile look like?

Part of the smarter grid is made up of computers and AI / machine learning. For a system to be antifragile, it must be adaptable, and being able to learn is certainly part of improving through stressful events. First, antifragility in the systems we build is really about people; it is the people who learn and adapt and become stronger, who build back better. Secondly, the system itself can have built in memory now, and can offer suggestions to its operators about how to design improvements after any failure that identifies a weakness. The antifragile grid of the future will be learning in real time through every success and every failure. Of course, computers need power to run, the grid delivers the power, the computers improve the grid… A virtuous antifragile cycle of continuous system evolution is possible.

Jordan Sun, the new CIO of San Jose, CA, asks, “What are the things … that we can offer to create more communities that are antifragile to future systemic shocks?” It’s a good question. A good answer might include DES as building blocks to a smarter, more resilient grid, that can become antifragile over time as more computers, sensors, controls and DES are added. Our legacy grid is costing us a lot from white swan events, events that are like driving into a wall at one mile an hour, fifty times; what will it cost us in a black swan event, one that is like hitting a wall once, at fifty miles an hour? In a high speed crash, it’s good to have airbags. DES can act as the airbags of the grid. When unprecedented extreme events happen, will we have an antifragile grid that softens the impact, and learns in real time how to improve?

Questions? Key points I missed? Share below in the comments — I look forward to continuing the conversation with you.

This is the second of a series of articles on:

#innovation #technology #entrepreneurship #intrapreneurship #resilience #antifragile #energy #systems

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Andrea Ruotolo, PhD is Global Head of Distributed Energy & Networks with Worley, the world’s largest engineering services firm in the energy sector, where she leads intrapreneurial teams in scaling new technology solutions and entering new markets, and identifies high-value strategic investment opportunities.

Andrea is a recognized executive, thought leader, team builder and mentor. Her work has been featured in Microgrid Knowledge, Digital Insider, and numerous webinars and industry papers. Andrea is a Fulbright Scholar and global citizen who is excited to collaborate with you in building antifragile teams that drive innovation for a more sustainable, thriving future for humanity.

NOTE, all statements and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent in any way the position or opinion of Worley or any other employee or affiliate of Worley.