Guest Opinion: Attack of the killer balloons, and the clean local energy solution | June 29, 2018 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - June 29, 2018

Guest Opinion: Attack of the killer balloons, and the clean local energy solution

by Craig Lewis

On June 2, a seemingly innocent party decoration caused a power outage for two hours for 4,500 Palo Alto Utility customers. The culprit was a Mylar balloon, which got caught in the power lines.

This wasn't a freak occurrence. Mylar balloons are responsible for quite a few power outages: about 300 each year in Pacific Gas & Electric's service territory alone. In fact, as Palo Alto Online reported, the balloons are the No. 1 cause of power outages. And the outages can be far worse than this recent event. Although no transformers were damaged this time, the balloons often cause transformers to explode.

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.

Craig Lewis is the executive director of the Clean Coalition of Menlo Park and can be emailed at craig@clean-coalition.org.

Comments

7 people like this
Posted by An Engineer
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 29, 2018 at 9:46 pm

What is a community microgrid and how does it fend off stray mylar balloons?


5 people like this
Posted by Wondering??
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 1, 2018 at 10:37 am

Wondering why this author has not included any costs for the homeowner including:

Initial Cost to purchase equipment
Time to acquire equipment
Cost to install
Cost to maintain
Fuel Source
Reliability
Downtime needed for maintenance
Life-cycle Times
Cost to dismantle
Effective cost to operate (ie--$/KWH)
Environmental costs to manufacture this equipment

All of these topics would need a lot of explanation before jumping on this bandwagon.

The idea of microgrids has been around for a while. While attractive for clusters of housing in rural areas. Not clear that it's as attractive in urban residential areas.

Not at all clear that alternative sources of energy are as clean as their advocates would have us believe. Trying to claim that the odd power outage due to mylar balloons is a reason to spend untold billions to abandon our current grid, which is very reliable, doesn't make much sense.


2 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jul 1, 2018 at 1:48 pm

$1000 will buy a nice quiet portable gasoline powered 1800 watt Honda generator.


2 people like this
Posted by Solarman
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Jul 1, 2018 at 7:40 pm

So, Lewis would a rival utility or disenfranchised ratepayers launch a (99 luft Mylar)balloons attack? Engineer, tell us all how to stop an attack from drones dropping long Mylar ribbons across the major power corridors into cities and across state lines? What happens IF this is done over the IoT by remote control? Just how much damage could one do?


2 people like this
Posted by An Engineer
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 2, 2018 at 12:48 pm

"Engineer, tell us all how to stop an attack from drones dropping long Mylar ribbons across the major power corridors into cities and across state lines?"

What prevents it now is testosterone block. Terrorists are hung up on shooting, bombing, running down, knifing, and the like. Your proposal would be effective, very effective, but the preparation is too boring. I've heard a rumor our side tried it in Iran and Iraq, but no word on effects.

What does dropping long mylar ribbons across state lines accomplish?


Like this comment
Posted by Solarman
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Jul 2, 2018 at 6:15 pm

Engineer, it appears you are not an electrical Engineer for a utility. The typical business model for a power utility is, centralized generation with distribution over power corridors. You've seen them, running across the desert from a centralized power generation source to some large population area. Many of these power corridors come across State lines to feed 'other' Metropolitan areas. An example, the Palo Verde Nuclear plant feeds Phoenix Arizona and the surrounding area, it also is sent to California and feeds many cities like San Diego. Would dropping long Mylar ribbons over these Interstate power lines cause a shutdown?

I see your point, testosterone will work to keep such things under wrap. Unless some prepubescent kids figure out a way to do this, just to see what it's like to take down an entire grid, network. This type of stuff although "out there" could take only a few 'actors', with the internet competence to coordinate several attacks across several State's grids. The bottom line there becomes, how smart do you have to be, to take the Nation's power grids down?


1 person likes this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 2, 2018 at 7:09 pm

Power is out again tonight in Palo Alto. Is this another balloon, a fallen tree limb, or a squirrel?

Let's get the wires underground to protect our service.


Like this comment
Posted by An Engineer
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 2, 2018 at 8:15 pm

"Engineer, it appears you are not an electrical Engineer for a utility."

It appears you need to learn how to spot ambiguities in your writing and resolve them. To wit, "... dropping long Mylar ribbons across the major power corridors into cities and across state lines." Dropping Mylar ribbons across major power corridors = bad outcome. Dropping Mylar ribbons across state lines = silliness.

BTW, everybody should refer to aluminized Mylar in this context. Mylar itself is a very poor electrical conductor.


Like this comment
Posted by Solarman
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Jul 3, 2018 at 12:02 am

[Portion removed.] A fellow that works for utilities as a troubleshooter got the opportunity to work in Iraq restoring some of the power structure destroyed by shock and awe. Most of the power transformers were destroyed. He said it looked more like an EMP event on every transformer he replaced. [Portion removed.]


Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jul 3, 2018 at 3:01 am

I'm anxiously awaiting the next Carrington Event.


Like this comment
Posted by Rosana Francescato
a resident of another community
on Jul 3, 2018 at 9:57 am

To answer some of your questions:

A Community Microgrid is a new approach for designing and operating the electric grid, based on local renewables and other distributed energy resources like energy storage and demand response. A Community Microgrid is linked to the main electric grid, but during a power outage a Community Microgrid can isolate and keep running, providing power to critical facilities. This scalable and replicable approach can save money, provide local economic stimulation, and provision secure and stable clean local energy, even during disasters. Community Microgrids deliver an unparalleled trifecta of economic, environmental, and resilience benefits across broad communities.

See more on Community Microgrids here: Web Link

Community Microgrids can't prevent outages from Mylar balloons or other causes. But they can provide communities resilience during an outage -- even keeping critical loads online indefinitely. This is something dirty diesel generators can't do, as diesel often runs out during extended disaster situations.

A grid made up of many Community Microgrids would be far more resilient to outages, which would be contained to smaller areas.

There are no costs to homeowners, as Community Microgrids are installed at commercial-scale sites like schools, municipal buildings, fire and police stations, water pumping stations, stores, and emergency shelters. That way, they benefit the entire community.

And yes, the outage last night was also caused by a Mylar balloon.

- Rosana Francescato, Communications Director, Clean Coalition


1 person likes this
Posted by Aletheia
a resident of Green Acres
on Jul 3, 2018 at 11:05 am

Aletheia is a registered user.

Sure, but at what cost? We are already paying some of the highest electricity costs in the country (not to mention gasoline)!

Web Link


1 person likes this
Posted by An Engineer
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 3, 2018 at 12:42 pm

[Portion removed.]
EMP and overload are not synonymous. "He said it looked more like an EMP event on every transformer he replaced." The only disruption of a power grid by EMP occurred in Hawaii in the early sixties due to high altitude nuclear bomb tests. It is therefore highly doubtful your friend would even know what to look for.


Like this comment
Posted by An Engineer
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 3, 2018 at 12:46 pm

"Community Microgrids can't prevent outages from Mylar balloons or other causes. But they can provide communities resilience during an outage -- even keeping critical loads online indefinitely. This is something dirty diesel generators can't do, as diesel often runs out during extended disaster situations."

Thanks for the response. Hope you informed your boss about the aluminized balloons.

What feeds an isolated Community Microgrid on windless nights?


18 people like this
Posted by OMG, it's an Engineer-Off
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 3, 2018 at 12:49 pm

[Portion removed.]


Like this comment
Posted by Leximan
a resident of Palo Alto Orchards
on Jul 3, 2018 at 3:44 pm

[Portion removed.]


Like this comment
Posted by An Engineer
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 3, 2018 at 5:04 pm

[Post removed.]


1 person likes this
Posted by Solarman
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Jul 3, 2018 at 10:17 pm

[Portion removed.] As for the "only" EMP was experienced in Hawaii during nuclear testing is false. India did a very thorough study of EMP damage in the 1970's. From their studies, it was found a simple section of iron pipe with a high brisance explosive inside could amplify a small injected radio signal that would propagate through a wire wrapped around the iron pipe. [Portion removed.]


Like this comment
Posted by Solarman
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Jul 3, 2018 at 10:36 pm

Rosana Francescato, thank you for your information on the subject. [Portion removed.] As the point to "dirty diesel" running out, part of an emergency response plan would be to "insure" the diesel back up generators at primary sites like water, sewer and communications sites would be fueled and serviced regularly. When a disaster strikes the emergency plan should also have service trucks fueling these critical sites. California has an emergency plan as well as FEMA. Since we really don't know the "cause" of the disaster, like the San Andreas fault actively destroying infrastructure like natural gas lines, a stand alone "dirty generator" may be your best option in such an event.


Like this comment
Posted by An Engineer
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 3, 2018 at 10:39 pm

"India did a very thorough study of EMP damage in the 1970's. From their studies, it was found a simple section of iron pipe with a high brisance explosive inside could amplify a small injected radio signal that would propagate through a wire wrapped around the iron pipe."

That's just a fancy variant on automobile ignition technology which has been used since the Model T. You know, the Maxwell-Faraday law: curl E = -dB/dt. Destroying electromagnets using explosives greatly enhances the dt effect. Check out the recent work on it at Texas Tech.

Nobody's using it to fry grid power transformers. On the other hand, geomagnetic synchrotron radiation from the Compton electrons created by gamma emissions from nudets in the ionosphere proved to be very effective grid busters in Hawaii. Also look up the AFWL Orange Book if you can find a loose copy. Their owners guard them with bared fangs.

I don't know what all this has to do with community microgrids, but I hope it helps fill in your EMP/NEMP knowledge gaps. Good luck.


1 person likes this
Posted by Solarman
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Jul 3, 2018 at 11:08 pm

Aletheia, the major power utilities like PG&E, SCE have gone to the tiered rate electricity system to get their ratepayers to "save energy" is one excuse, the other reason is to pay for power at spot pricing from outside generators at a premium price per MWh. This also allows the utility to "adjust" the amount of KWh used by the ratepayers in each tier. This is supposed to be due to the load requirements on the grid also. As Rosana Francescato replied about micro-grids, if you live in your own home, not renting or an apartment, then get your own solar PV system with battery storage. You don't even have to "connect" to the grid to use solar PV. One could split their home's circuit breaker panel and break out some lights and fans dedicated to D.C. only circuits. The grid could go down and you'd still have lights, fans and could use a small inverter to keep the refrigerator on or even an Oxygen generator with those who have Emphysema. Pay it forward it pays for itself over the long run.


Like this comment
Posted by Solarman
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Jul 3, 2018 at 11:23 pm

[Post removed.]


Like this comment
Posted by Vasche LaMou
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jul 4, 2018 at 1:01 pm

"get your own solar PV system with battery storage. ... The grid could go down and you'd still have lights..."

And, on a clear day you'd still have lights after the batteries run down.

Or, at night you could shine a battery of diesel-generator-powered floodlights on your solar panels and you could have lights at night and maybe recharge the batteries too.


1 person likes this
Posted by Solarman
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Jul 4, 2018 at 3:16 pm

Well, happy fourth of July in celebration of the first Amendment of the U.S. Constitution there Moderator. Did the false "Engineer" cry foul and have the last post removed? Perhaps I hit a little to close to home on the supposed "reliability" of the overall grid system? Censorship is NOT going to protect people, correct and reliable information can, if used properly.


Like this comment
Posted by Solarman
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Jul 4, 2018 at 3:23 pm

Wow, a little trolling by Vasche Lamou? "Or, at night you could shine a battery of diesel-generator-powered floodlights on your solar panels and you could have lights at night and maybe recharge the batteries too."

Correct design of the "system" would meet criteria of "several days" of battery backup to power lights, and fans in the home. You don't even know the actual load an LED light places on the system do you? How about ceiling fans? How much does an energy star refrigerator require? How does the "duty cycle" of each attached load effect the battery drain? You have NO experience with solar PV or battery storage, it shows and is very sad in a sunny State such as California.


Like this comment
Posted by P M machine
a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Jul 4, 2018 at 3:24 pm

I'm loving this: you could shine a battery of diesel-generator-powered floodlights on your solar panels and you could have lights at night and maybe recharge the batteries too

Use energy to create energy. Ahhhh, anyone smell a Perpetual Motion startup, here?

Happy I-Day, y'all...


1 person likes this
Posted by An Engineer
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 4, 2018 at 5:10 pm

"Did the false [sic] "Engineer" cry foul and have the last post removed?"

No. Sorry I missed it. Please repost the original.


"Well, happy fourth of July in celebration of the first Amendment of the U.S. Constitution"

Wrong on two counts.

1. The First Amendment is properly celebrated on December 15, the anniversary of its adoption, not on July 4.

2. It only enjoins the government, not privately owned enterprises.


Like this comment
Posted by Hahaha
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 5, 2018 at 2:22 pm

They CANNOT stay away from this thread! LOL :)


Like this comment
Posted by Solarman
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Jul 7, 2018 at 8:52 pm

The news of today: Web Link

Just trying to run an out of date and poorly Engineered grid system is beginning to take its toll on Southern California families. No balloons needed. Until the utilities catch up with energy storage, this may be the typical hot day in California for quite a while.


Like this comment
Posted by An Engineer
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 8, 2018 at 12:47 pm

"Until the utilities catch up with energy storage, this may be the typical hot day in California for quite a while."

They only need to add peaker generation capacity. The technology has existed for decades.


Like this comment
Posted by Solarman
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Jul 8, 2018 at 2:53 pm

Yeah, Peaker plants in California have been around since Grey Davis was "fired" for allowing the grid infrastructure to fall to "deregulation" incompetency in 1999.
Web Link#
Natural gas is a "fuel" resource that needs to be competently stored for reliable peak usage, it doesn't seem to be so. Aliso Canyon has proven that storage infrastructure is unreliable. All of this storage and all of these maintenance problems. Low bid wins again, the ratepayers get screwed in the long run.


Like this comment
Posted by An Engineer
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 8, 2018 at 4:14 pm

"Yeah, Peaker plants in California have been around since Grey Davis was "fired" for allowing the grid infrastructure to fall to "deregulation" incompetency in 1999."

You forget that 100% of the Legislature voted for that dereg. Veto impossible. But "Kenny Boy" Lay's Enron loved it. You also seem unaware that peakers have been around for decades before that.

"Natural gas is a "fuel" resource that needs to be competently stored for reliable peak usage, it doesn't seem to be so."

Uh-uh. Peakers use a variety of fuels, including mains gas. Read beyond your solar panel brochures.

To your earlier point: Why do you want to site undetonated bombs around in a community? That's what big charged batteries amount to, you (should) know. How many kilotons-equivalent are you proposing?


Like this comment
Posted by North Korean balloon?
a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 8, 2018 at 9:01 pm

North Korea does not need nukes. Our infrastructure is so backward that even a party balloon can knock out the lights. America needs major upgrades.But tax breaks for corporations and the rich do not provide the funds.


Like this comment
Posted by Solarman
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Jul 9, 2018 at 1:19 am

Wow, an Engineer,Why do I want to site undetonated bombs around the community? Really, REALLY? When that 53 inch natural gas line blew up and took out an entire block, how many kilotons was that? On your block, how many cars with gas in them could create "bombs around the community". DUUUUUUUUUUUHHHHHHHHH!


Like this comment
Posted by An Engineer
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 9, 2018 at 12:31 pm

"Why do I want to site undetonated bombs around the community? Really, REALLY?"

Good point. I should have asked, Why do you want to site *even more* undetonated bombs around in a community?

For a Solarman you do keep odd hours.


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