Like a careless driver in a fast car, Hurricane Irma plowed through the Leeward Islands in early September. It sideswiped Puerto Rico, knocking out electric power to 1 million people. It ran over Caribbean resort islands including Saint Kitts and Saint Martin, then skidded north at Key West. Careening up the Florida peninsula, Irma left millions of people without power.

A multi-billion-dollar smart grid investment and an unprecedented repair effort helped Florida Power & Light—the state’s largest utility—restore most service to 4.4 million customers by 22 September.

In a statement, the utility credited what it said was one of the largest restoration workforces assembled in U.S. history. Some 28,000 workers from 30 states and Canada had the power back on within 10 days.

Then, almost improbably, a second storm plowed through the Leeward Islands two weeks after Irma. This time, Puerto Rico was hit head-on by Hurricane Maria. Essentially 100 percent of its power was knocked out.

“I can’t tell my guys to put trucks on I-95 and drive south”

A week after Maria hit, the Defense Department said that 56 percent of the island’s residents had no potable drinking water. In addition, 80 percent of the island’s electricity transmission system and all of its distribution system were said to be damaged. 

Full recovery likely will take months, complicated by the U.S. territory’s financial straits, by the damage across an area the size of Connecticut, and by the island’s distance from the mainland; San Juan is more than 1,000 miles from Miami.

“I can’t tell my guys to put trucks on I-95 and drive south,” said Mike Hyland, senior vice president of engineering services for the American Public Power Association (APPA). The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) is an APPA member. That makes it eligible for mutual aid from other members. Some of those members in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida received aid from APPA after Irma crashed through.

Indeed, recovery for Puerto Rico and for other islands mowed down by Irma and Maria hinges on logistics as much as engineering.

Not only do trucks, equipment, and personnel need to be moved by barge and airplane to the islands, but arrangements need to be made for fuel, food, water, security, and housing. Across the region, demand for all of that is high. If a line worker takes a San Juan hotel room, will a permanent resident have to move?

A trip down I-95 to help Florida “seems like an easy problem when you look at an island event,” said Hyland. As he spoke, he made his way toward a meeting at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA, along with the U.S. Department of Energy, is working with commonwealth and PREPA officials to organize the recovery.

In the days immediately after Maria, attention focused on ensuring that electric power was supplied by emergency generators at hospitals, critical care facilities, and other locations with a humanitarian need for power.

The Defense Department said that as of 27 September, 11 of 69 hospitals had fuel or power. Reports said that fuel for some critical care facilities was being delivered by armed guards to discourage looting. At some gasoline stations, wait times for motorists were measured in hours.

Encouragingly, early reports suggested that only minor damage was suffered by most electric generating assets, many of them along the island’s southern coast.

Most of the island’s generating assets appeared to be unharmed

For example, Pattern Energy’s 101-megawatt Santa Isabel wind farm rode out the storm with no damage to turbines or blades, said spokesman Matt Dallas in an email. The facility’s grid connection was harder to reach behind a locked fence on private property. In a follow-up, Dallas said, “We have also now confirmed that there does not appear to be any damage to our connection to the grid including the interconnecting switchyard.”

Indeed, early inspection showed that generating assets are “relatively OK,” said Gil Quiniones, CEO of the New York Power Authority (NYPA). He and 10 NYPA generation and transmission experts joined a 22 September trip with Governor Andrew Cuomo in response to a governor-to-governor request from Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló for assistance.

“Damage has been more to the [transmission and distribution] system,” Quiniones said. “The only buildings with electricity are those with their own power supplies.”

The PREPA transmission system is based on 115-kilovolt (kV) and 230-kV lines, similar to NYPA’s. “We can add a lot of value in planning and restoration,” Quiniones said.

Florida’s relatively fast service restoration was due in part to some $3 billion spent over the past decade on smart meters, smart grid, and infrastructure hardening, said Chris McGrath, an FPL spokesperson.

Upgrades to distribution poles, including shorter line spans between poles, helped to harden the FPL system. In addition, nearly 83,000 smart devices—including automated feeder switches and automated lateral switches—enabled the system to detect trouble on a line and reroute power.

Some $3 billion in smart grid investment seems to have paid off for Florida Power & Light

McGrath said that even on a sunny day, if a palm frond brushed against a line, an automated lateral switch would close after detecting a fault on the line. A momentary outage might occur, then the switch would reopen as the fault cleared. Known as “trip savers,” McGrath said the devices help reduce the number of times crews must travel into the field to reset a switch. During Irma, those devices helped to avoid multiple outages that would have required crews to roll.

What’s more, around 90 percent of new construction in the heavily populated counties of Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami/Dade uses underground utilities. The practice can be expensive, but reduces the threat of outages during wind events such as hurricanes. Underground facilities are no magic bullet, said McGrath. “An outage could be longer during a major flood.”

Those upgrades may be impractical for Puerto Rico as it recovers from Hurricane Maria. Distributed generation and microgrids may be attractive ideas, but would take a long time to plan and require a lot of money, said APPA’s Hyland. For now, work needs to focus on protecting “life and safety.” That means restoring the existing grid as quickly as possible.

Paying for the restoration may also be a challenge. The commonwealth was in financial crisis before the September hurricanes and the state-run utility PREPA was in a form of bankruptcy.

On 26 September, the White House increased the level of federal funding for debris removal and “emergency protective measures” from 75 percent to 100 percent of Puerto Rico’s costs over the next 180 days. 

“It’s difficult when PREPA is basically bankrupt,” said NYPA’s Quiniones. As a result, just who will pick up the tab for long-term restoration work “is still a question mark.”

The Conversation (0)
This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

The number of charging stations in Utrecht has risen sharply over the past decade.

“People are buying more and more electric cars,” says Eerenberg, the alderman. City officials noticed a surge in such purchases in recent years, only to hear complaints from Utrechters that they then had to go through a long application process to have a charger installed where they could use it. Eerenberg, a computer scientist by training, is still working to unwind these knots. He realizes that the city has to go faster if it is to meet the Dutch government’s mandate for all new cars to be zero-emission in eight years.

The amount of energy being used to charge EVs in Utrecht has skyrocketed in recent years.

Although similar mandates to put more zero-emission vehicles on the road in New York and California failed in the past, the pressure for vehicle electrification is higher now. And Utrecht city officials want to get ahead of demand for greener transportation solutions. This is a city that just built a central underground parking garage for 12,500 bicycles and spent years digging up a freeway that ran through the center of town, replacing it with a canal in the name of clean air and healthy urban living.

A driving force in shaping these changes is Matthijs Kok, the city’s energy-transition manager. He took me on a tour—by bicycle, naturally—of Utrecht’s new green infrastructure, pointing to some recent additions, like a stationary battery designed to store solar energy from the many panels slated for installation at a local public housing development.

This map of Utrecht shows the city’s EV-charging infrastructure. Orange dots are the locations of existing charging stations; red dots denote charging stations under development. Green dots are possible sites for future charging stations.

“This is why we all do it,” Kok says, stepping away from his propped-up bike and pointing to a brick shed that houses a 400-kilowatt transformer. These transformers are the final link in the chain that runs from the power-generating plant to high-tension wires to medium-voltage substations to low-voltage transformers to people’s kitchens.

There are thousands of these transformers in a typical city. But if too many electric cars in one area need charging, transformers like this can easily become overloaded. Bidirectional charging promises to ease such problems.

Kok works with others in city government to compile data and create maps, dividing the city into neighborhoods. Each one is annotated with data on population, types of households, vehicles, and other data. Together with a contracted data-science group, and with input from ordinary citizens, they developed a policy-driven algorithm to help pick the best locations for new charging stations. The city also included incentives for deploying bidirectional chargers in its 10-year contracts with vehicle charge-station operators. So, in these chargers went.

Experts expect bidirectional charging to work particularly well for vehicles that are part of a fleet whose movements are predictable. In such cases, an operator can readily program when to charge and discharge a car’s battery.

We Drive Solar earns credit by sending battery power from its fleet to the local grid during times of peak demand and charges the cars’ batteries back up during off-peak hours. If it does that well, drivers don’t lose any range they might need when they pick up their cars. And these daily energy trades help to keep prices down for subscribers.

Encouraging car-sharing schemes like We Drive Solar appeals to Utrecht officials because of the struggle with parking—a chronic ailment common to most growing cities. A huge construction site near the Utrecht city center will soon add 10,000 new apartments. Additional housing is welcome, but 10,000 additional cars would not be. Planners want the ratio to be more like one car for every 10 households—and the amount of dedicated public parking in the new neighborhoods will reflect that goal.

This photograph shows four parked vehicles, each with the words \u201cWe Drive Solar\u201d prominently displayed, and each plugged into a charge point.Some of the cars available from We Drive Solar, including these Hyundai Ioniq 5s, are capable of bidirectional charging.We Drive Solar

Projections for the large-scale electrification of transportation in Europe are daunting. According to a Eurelectric/Deloitte report, there could be 50 million to 70 million electric vehicles in Europe by 2030, requiring several million new charging points, bidirectional or otherwise. Power-distribution grids will need hundreds of billions of euros in investment to support these new stations.

The morning before Eerenberg sat down with me at city hall to explain Utrecht’s charge-station planning algorithm, war broke out in Ukraine. Energy prices now strain many households to the breaking point. Gasoline has reached $6 a gallon (if not more) in some places in the United States. In Germany in mid-June, the driver of a modest VW Golf had to pay about €100 (more than $100) to fill the tank. In the U.K., utility bills shot up on average by more than 50 percent on the first of April.

The war upended energy policies across the European continent and around the world, focusing people’s attention on energy independence and security, and reinforcing policies already in motion, such as the creation of emission-free zones in city centers and the replacement of conventional cars with electric ones. How best to bring about the needed changes is often unclear, but modeling can help.

Nico Brinkel, who is working on his doctorate in Wilfried van Sark’s photovoltaics-integration lab at Utrecht University, focuses his models at the local level. In his calculations, he figures that, in and around Utrecht, low-voltage grid reinforcements cost about €17,000 per transformer and about €100,000 per kilometer of replacement cable. “If we are moving to a fully electrical system, if we’re adding a lot of wind energy, a lot of solar, a lot of heat pumps, a lot of electric vehicles…,” his voice trails off. “Our grid was not designed for this.”

But the electrical infrastructure will have to keep up. One of Brinkel’s studies suggests that if a good fraction of the EV chargers are bidirectional, such costs could be spread out in a more manageable way. “Ideally, I think it would be best if all of the new chargers were bidirectional,” he says. “The extra costs are not that high.”

Berg doesn’t need convincing. He has been thinking about what bidirectional charging offers the whole of the Netherlands. He figures that 1.5 million EVs with bidirectional capabilities—in a country of 8 million cars—would balance the national grid. “You could do anything with renewable energy then,” he says.

Seeing that his country is starting with just hundreds of cars capable of bidirectional charging, 1.5 million is a big number. But one day, the Dutch might actually get there.

This article appears in the August 2022 print issue as “A Road Test for Vehicle-to-Grid Tech.”

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