November 16, 2018
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How Maine can make its power grid more resistant to storms

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

On Oct. 30, a windstorm swept through Maine with 80 mph wind gusts, leaving more than a half million people without power. It was the single largest power outage in Maine history. Power was restored to most customers within a few days, but for more than 10,000 people, the outage lasted significantly longer, with some people in the dark for 12 days. Then on Nov. 10, another 25,000 customers lost power after a second round of gusts.

The electric power grid in Maine will always struggle with outages. Maine is a rural state with many power lines serving low-density areas. We are a forested state, and much of the ground is bedrock. Burying lines is difficult and expensive. Keeping up with tree growth is demanding.

Puerto Rico and Cuba were both hit by a Category 5 storm in September. Two months later, nearly half of Puerto Rico was still without power. In contrast, Cuba regained full power within a week. The Cubans had installed 1,800 distributed generating plants five years ago that, along with their local customers, form microgrids that disconnect from the nationwide grid during outages and continue to deliver electricity locally. After a storm passes, the microgrids reconnect and contribute power to the universal grid.

Over the past five years, several states hit by Superstorm Sandy developed ways to create a more resilient grid. Rhode Island recently established an energy policy to control long-term costs, give customers more energy choices and information, and build a flexible grid that relies more on clean energy in power generation.

Massachusetts’ power grid upgrade aims to reduce the impact of power outages, optimize demand (including reducing system and customer costs), integrate distributed energy resources, and improve workforce and asset management.

In Pittsburgh, city leaders believe microgrids could lead to energy independence, pave the way to green energy reliance and enable Pittsburgh to withstand the impacts of storms. Other cities are following its example. Officials from San Juan recently reached out to Pittsburgh for advice on rebuilding Puerto Rico’s power grid.

Buffalo, New York, is experiencing an economic turnaround, helped by a growing renewable energy sector. The most compelling symbol of Buffalo’s shifting economy is the green energy complex on Lake Erie, where a new solar array is joining an existing wind farm. The spinning turbines provide a clean-energy backdrop for long-shuttered steel mills. The complex is a microgrid powering roughly 15,000 homes under contract to the local utility, Constellation Energy Resources.

As the planet warms, major storms are becoming more common and extreme in Maine as well, and we will continue to experience outage-causing storms. Microgrids would improve grid resiliency, decreasing the number and length of outages, reducing economic losses and saving lives. Utilities would benefit as well from reduced peak power and transmission costs, energy arbitrage, frequency regulation, improved cybersecurity, lower regional network charges, demand management and more. This would lead to lower electric bills across the state.

By establishing microgrids, municipalities, communities and neighborhoods could gain improved control over their electricity supply. The internal energy source of a microgrid may be fossil fuels, biomass, solar, wind, hydro, tidal, locally produced methane, hydrogen fuel cells and so on — all combined with ample battery storage. Microgrids can be scaled and tailored to meet local needs.

To move energy policy forward in Maine, I introduced LD 257, which looks to address increased outages and seeks ways to embrace new energy technology.

On Dec. 7, the Energy, Utilities, and Technology Committee will hold the second of two meetings to gather information and begin drafting final language for the bill. It is imperative that the needs of utilities, municipalities and other entities are met so that Maine can successfully utilize new energy technology to address deficiencies in our grid.

Obstacles to making microgrids a reality in Maine remain. Maximum limits on local power generation may need to be defined. Running private wires internal to microgrids across public rights-of-way may be problematic under current rules. In any event, all stakeholders must be satisfied and must work together.

When it comes to the future of our power grid, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Mick Devin, a marine biologist and a member of the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee, is serving his third term in the Maine House, where he represents District 90.

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