When Mylar-balloon ribbons wrap around power distribution lines and the metallic balloons touch the lines, the aluminum foil in the balloons conducts electricity, causing the balloons to catch fire and explode. This phenomenon is illustrated well at the 45-second mark in this video at bit.ly/2tL2jvT.
While some have suggested banning Mylar balloons, they're not the only threat to our power system. If something as simple as a balloon can spark a system outage, imagine the damage that can be done by a fire, a severe storm or a car running into a utility pole. Unfortunately, there have been plenty of recent examples of severe storms causing major power outages, accompanied by extensive death and destruction.
Disasters such as last year's North Bay fires highlight the vulnerability of our power system. The North Bay Community Resilience Initiative is working to build back a more robust and resilient energy system.
It's time to upgrade our antiquated electric grid to a clean local energy system featuring community microgrids, which provide community resilience. If our electricity distribution system is upgraded into sectionable microgrids — with solar power; energy storage; and monitoring, communications and control equipment that can island the microgrids and provide indefinite renewables-driven backup power to critical facilities — our energy system will be able to robustly adjust to shocks, and our communities will be far more resilient. With community microgrids, when the transmission system goes down, critical facilities can continue functioning indefinitely.
For the past 21 months, the Peninsula Advanced Energy Community (PAEC) Initiative, focused on Redwood City, the Town of Atherton, Menlo Park, East Palo Alto, and broadly incorporating all of San Mateo County, has been studying best practices and tools for deploying community microgrids and accelerating the buildout of a clean local energy future. PAEC will create pathways to cost-effective clean local energy and community resilience throughout San Mateo County and the city of Palo Alto. Findings from the PAEC Initiative will guide regulators, utilities, building and planning departments, developers, building owners and elected municipal officials in deploying local renewables and other advanced energy solutions like energy efficiency, energy storage and electric vehicle charging infrastructure (EVCI).
Palo Alto is already leading on EVCI efforts, as highlighted in the PAEC Master Case Study, available at bit.ly/2Kk4fpt. In 2014, the city adopted a groundbreaking solar-carport policy for public parking lots that includes energy storage and EV charging. The city of Palo Alto Utilities offers generous rebates to nonprofits, schools and multifamily complexes to install charging stations. And Palo Alto has adopted other ordinances and codes that can serve as models for municipalities around California who wish to facilitate the transition to clean local energy.
Community microgrids will be an important part of this transition. While power outages are inconvenient for some people, they can be life-threatening for others. In the event of natural disasters, for example, critical services need to continue operations — services like those provided by hospitals, emergency sheltering centers, police and fire stations, and critical communications and water infrastructure.
We don't have to live with the current grid vulnerabilities; we have a solution that's available now. Community microgrids provide a new approach to designing and operating the electric grid, with substantial levels of local renewables and other distributed energy resources like energy storage that ensure critical services keep running. Solar-emergency microgrids are a simplified version of community microgrids and can keep single critical facilities operational indefinitely. Community microgrids are the building blocks we need for a modern grid to upgrade our current antiquated system. Furthermore, community microgrids deliver an unparalleled trifecta of economic, environmental and resilience benefits to communities.
The Peninsula area, a global technological leader, should lead in modernizing our grid. Work is already being done to move us in this direction. The PAEC Initiative is designing community microgrids and solar-emergency microgrids for the region to provide indefinite renewables-driven backup power to critical facilities.
Every community should have a plan to deploy community microgrids that allow vital emergency services to be powered by local renewables for high resilience. Importantly, diesel generators do not provide the same level of resilience, as they require diesel fuel, which is generally limited to a few days of supply; and diesel generators are highly polluting and expensive, given that they need to be operated every couple weeks for standard maintenance.
Every community should be asking their municipality to provide a plan to upgrade the city's energy infrastructure so it is less vulnerable to natural disasters — much less a stray metallic balloon.
In the June 2 incident, utility crews were able to get power back within a couple of hours. But if a transformer or other key infrastructure had been damaged, the outage would likely have lasted considerably longer. When natural disasters strike, outages can last for days and even longer. In the event that we have to deal with long and widespread power outages, our technically brilliant community deserves to have a smarter, more resilient energy system that can quickly adjust and continue functioning with clean local energy.
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