As I sit here in Atlanta saying to myself, “so far, so good”, as the utility grid continues to deliver electricity to the West End and other neighborhoods, I am also thinking about people in my two home regions: the Eastern Caribbean and Florida. Irma’s pounding of the Caribbean has obliterated Barbuda and has the residents of St Martin scrambling for food as they fight for physical and emotional survival. My birthplace, St. Thomas, has seen its hospital destroyed and over 70% of its electricity infrastructure destroyed.
Irma, at the time of this writing, caused two million South Florida households and businesses to lose power, with an additional four million other households throughout the Sunshine State experiencing the same debilitating effects from the storm. Irma tells me that while no utility grid is storm proof, continued investment has to be made to ensure that recovery times after a storm are reduced, allowing those customers who rely solely on utility-provided electricity to access energy.
A resilient utility grid infrastructure also provides an important backbone service for consumers who are able to provide their own electricity. A growing number of citizens are producing their own electricity at their residences, choosing instead to be self-reliant. This capability to be self-reliant is supported by an energy grid that backs up a consumer for whom electricity-storing batteries are not available or when the sun is blocked or sufficient wind is not available to power their electricity generation.
For that residential energy generator, the utility grid connects her to the utility and via advanced communications technology, utility and generator to exchange information regarding a utility’s needs for excess electricity and a residential generator’s ability to meet that demand. Today’s grid is a “smart” one, using advanced communications technologies that allow utilities to better troubleshoot problems, determine where outages are, and communicate with ratepayers.
It is unfortunate that the self-reliance narrative has gotten either a bad rap or taken a back seat in the overall discussion about grid reliability and maintenance costs in an era where utilities are attempting to incorporate residential solar or wind into their grids. Contrary to popular belief, utilities have never expressed an opposition to self-reliance.
What utilities have made clear is that in order for them to provide a resilient electricity infrastructure, each ratepayer, whether they rely solely on the grid or use the grid to provide energy when the sun or wind is not available, should contribute to costs incurred for keeping the grid available, reliable, and resilient.