Benjamin W. Feldman, SF BART, April 2017
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Power Outage: Time is Now to Upgrade with Microgrids

Nov. 28, 2017
Disasters are instructive, but Schneider Electric North America's CEO says we don't need any more wake-up calls to start digitizing our energy infrastructure ASAP.

By ANNETTE CLAYTON, President & CEO, Schneider Electric North America

Electrical systems quite literally power the overall health and prosperity of our country, from construction to retail to healthcare. Once every few years, the national conversation turns to the need to add resiliency to the system, typically in the wake of a disaster wreaked by a major storm.

When our nation faces tragedies like what we’ve seen from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, we are first and foremost concerned with the devastating human impact. The way our industry has responded to provide relief, recovery, and rebuilding for communities in need is a source of pride for me.

Our companies are well-positioned to do more and lead a national discussion on an important reality: the current way of generating, transmitting, distributing, consuming, and managing energy is not sustainable. In fact, a major outage in San Francisco earlier this year (pictured above) demonstrated how fragile the system has become, even in the absence of a storm. A single circuit breaker failure disrupted more than 90,000 residents, closed businesses, and snarled public transportation.

Current ways of generating, transmitting, distributing, consuming, and managing energy are not sustainable. Digitization is a no-regret move to start addressing our aging infrastructure.

The world of energy is undergoing a massive transformation. Digitization, decentralization, and decarbonization are redefining the basics of power generation and distribution. We can build a next-generation grid based on the principles of efficiency, sustainability, reliability, safety, security, and performance. As we shift toward a new energy landscape that prioritizes renewables, we must help customers and utilities alike embrace and invest in the technologies that allow us to make the most of our energy assets and unlock superior outcomes for all stakeholders.

Digitization is a no-regret move when beginning the journey to address our existing aging infrastructure. The performance of even the oldest equipment can be significantly enhanced through better visibility and more finite control. Consider the impact of more insightful operation on safety, where new technologies allow us to better predict failures and safely take equipment out of service before people or equipment are harmed. In circumstances where a failure occurs without warning, we can limit the magnitude of the fault, the number of people affected, and the time without power.

For example, simple microgrid systems can protect a single home or facility or scale to power an entire community. We recently built an advanced microgrid at our Boston One Campus (BOC), which serves as our U.S. headquarters, to avoid costly power outages, reduce time to recovery for the critical business facility, and provide a shelter option for our staff and their families. Microgrids ease the integration of renewable generation into existing infrastructure. The newest grid management software co-optimizes the primary role of our facility—keeping employees comfortable and safe—with superior energy outcomes: higher resiliency, better sustainability, and lower/more predictable costs. The BOC now serves as a real-world demonstration of how we can leverage energy technology advancement to drive meaningful impact in our businesses and communities.

We shouldn’t wait until the next major storm or blackout to bring a resilient grid to the forefront. The challenge requires ongoing collaboration from technology providers, utilities, and regulators, as well as businesses and communities, to create meaningful change. By adopting microgrids and other electrical infrastructure upgrades, we can leverage technology for system transformation—introducing new levels of resiliency, speeding up recovery time after an outage, and even preventing catastrophic failures. This a call to action for our entire community.

This new digital world of energy—with more decentralized generation, a two-way flow of decarbonized energy, and more digitization for flexible, dynamic energy management—gives us an opportunity to co-create the future of the electrical system.


This piece was originally published in the November 2017 issue of electroindustry, the monthly magazine of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association. The author sits on NEMA's Board of Governors.