The Energy Resilience Imperative
Researchers in New South Wales recommend distributed energy resources and additional steps to ensure grid resilience.
In an era where extreme weather events are becoming increasingly common, the question of energy resilience has never been more pertinent. To look further into this issue, the University of New South Wales (UNSW) recently released a comprehensive report investigating the role of distributed energy resources (DER).
An electrical power outage during a storm. Image used courtesy of UNSW
DER—such as solar photovoltaic systems, batteries, and even fossil-fuel generators—are poised to play a significant role in mitigating the catastrophic impact of power outages during natural disasters. In this piece, we’ll look at the findings of the report and answer the question: Why should engineers care?
Distributed Energy Resources
DER includes a variety of technologies, from solar panels and batteries to electric vehicles and fossil-fuel generators. Within this, each technology comes with its own set of strengths and limitations.
Solar panels, for instance, offer a renewable source of power but their efficiency can be hampered by adverse weather or smoke. Batteries can store this energy but must be correctly configured to serve as a backup during grid outages. Fossil-fuel generators, while reliable, have the downside of contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.
According to the UNSW, a major engineering challenge for all DERs is system configuration.
Specifically, the report cites the fact that most solar-only systems are designed to shut down during grid outages. Environmental factors also play a role, as solar generation can be reduced by factors like bad weather, smoke, ash, and dirt, and batteries can be sensitive to extreme heat. Therefore, the report argues, engineers must ensure that solar and battery systems are configured correctly to provide significant resilience regardless of grid or weather conditions.
To ensure a sustainable future, there is a significant need to find energy solutions that balance the best of each while mitigating the downsides.
Beyond technology, the report also highlights that energy resilience is deeply connected with social, economic, and situational factors.
For example, during outages, communities have been observed to share resources like generators, phone chargers, or even communal cooking facilities. While technologies like microgrids offer a decentralized approach to energy distribution within communities, they also introduce their own challenges, such as equitable energy allocation among households and the division of contributions to the microgrid.
Microgrids offer a decentralized approach to energy distribution. Image used courtesy of FranklinWH
The solution, according to the report, is an increased need for education and awareness, with a call for greater public understanding of the resilience implications of DER technologies. Additionally, policies that support the adoption of DER, possibly through resilience-based grants or subsidies for solar PV and batteries, can shape the resilience of future communities. Finally, policymakers must be able to balance between the desire to decarbonize energy sources and the need for a diverse energy portfolio to build resilience.
Why Should Engineers Care?
For engineers, the report can serve as a blueprint for the future of sustainable systems.
First, the technological challenges outlined in the report—such as the need for precise system configuration and adaptability to environmental factors—offer room for engineering innovation. In the future, it will be necessary for engineers to design systems that can automatically adapt to changing conditions, whether it's a solar panel system that can optimize its angle based on weather conditions or a battery system that can regulate its charge and discharge cycles to maximize lifespan and reliability.
Second, the report makes it clear that the challenges are not solely technical but span social and economic dimensions. This calls for a multidisciplinary approach, where engineers collaborate with experts in public policy, economics, and community planning.
Finally, engineers must be prepared to play a role in policy formulation. With a deep understanding of DER technologies, engineers are uniquely positioned to advise policymakers on how to create regulations that are both ambitious and achievable. This could range from contributing to the design of resilience-based grants or subsidies to advocating for building codes that incorporate energy resilience measures.