Electric power is like good health: you do not even notice it until it fails. It is then, in both cases, that one realizes how vulnerable we can be to external circumstances. In the case of power, we experienced that first-hand last week when we had to evacuate our offices at the Kennedy Space Center as Hurricane Irma approached Florida in one of the largest evacuations in U.S. history. Alongside millions of Floridians, we were gone for a week. Unlike 6.3 million people across Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Alabama, however, we were lucky to have electric power when we returned (that is one of the perks of working in a NASA facility). In fact, electric power is one of the first modern necessities to vanish when natural systems like storms and earthquakes hit a community.
So useless without power…
In our society, electric power is basic for survival. From emergency alerts to keeping people in hospitals alive to preserving our food, power is central to our way of life. Although we may be years away from accurately predicting and controlling natural events like Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, which left millions of people without power in sweltering summer heat just a couple of weeks apart, today we have the ability to create a more resilient electric power system that could be more resistant to natural disasters, and could be back up quicker.
The Energy Connection
Many Floridians, including some of us at Joi Scientific, crawled back from safety after the storm passed and found many gas stations closed along the way. Last week, NPR reported on the not-so-obvious connection between two sources of power that we depend on practically every day: electricity and oil. They wrote, “Now that Hurricane Irma has left Florida, gasoline supplies are slowly coming back into the state. But thousands of gas stations remain closed anyway. That’s because with electricity out throughout the peninsula, even stations that have access to gas have no way to get it into people’s vehicles.” In fact, many people could not return for days after the storm due to the lack of gasoline. Following the storm, as these issues remained unsolved, TriplePundit expanded on this connection in an article, “From Gas Stations to the Grid, Will Florida Rebuild After Irma—Or Reinvent?”
For once, those flashy Teslas and the good old Chevy pickups shared the same problem, yet for very different reasons: no electricity means going nowhere. In the same NPR article, John Kilduff from energy investment firm Again Capital put it bluntly, “Power is the issue. Most of these gas stations do not have backup generation that can allow the pumps to work.” In fact, the article goes on to provide a number of closed stations from petroleum analysts: between 40% and 65% of all gas stations in Florida remained closed after the storm passed due to the lack of electricity.
The realization of our vulnerability on the energy supply by having one energy—electricity—affect the availability of another—gasoline—was not just limited to driving. News outlets reported that thousands had run out of batteries in their cell phones, and many more were saving the last bits of power for emergencies or to use map apps to find gas stations with power. As we all slowly return home, tons of rotten food from our powerless refrigerators will be thrown in the trash, recycling bins, and compost bins.
Energy Resilience Equals Survival
The fact is that the loss of electric power brings our focus back to covering life’s basics—like food, water, and transportation. These basics are what a billion people in the world must cope with, every day, and not because of any natural disaster: they live in places not covered by the electricity grid. (See our article on some innovations to help solve this problem here.)
The good news is that natural disasters like Hurricanes Harvey and Irma remind us of the need to accelerate the resilience of our electricity system using the technology we have at our disposal today. Utility companies around the world, who are already the main users of alternative sources of fuel for electricity such as wind and solar, are rapidly adapting their business models and their grids to incorporate “off-the-grid” distributed resources, such as the thousands of solar panels being installed at a record pace in homes and buildings around the world.
The TriplePundit article puts this resilience into perspective by stating, “In the long run, both Irma and Harvey will motivate utilities and their customers to take a closer look at renewable energy, distributed power generation and energy storage options that could be up and running quickly in the aftermath of a hurricane or other severe event. Energy storage in the form of hydrogen for fuel cells could also play an increased role in the sustainable grid of the future.”
When used together with traditional centralized power sources, localized energy production alternatives such as solar panels, wind turbines, and hydrogen can not only make the grid more resilient to power outages caused by the inevitable natural phenomena; they can reduce the load needed for the grid to recover faster from these events. This recovery would be made using clean energy, unlike the emergency electric generators of the past that relied on gas or diesel to provide temporary power.
Power You Don’t Even Have to Think About
Existing and new technologies are moving us closer to the day when power, like good health, is something we do not even have to think about. On many fronts, innovation is speeding our way to resilient power. From the huge battery factory Tesla is about to open in the U.S., to breakthroughs such as affordable and clean Hydrogen 2.0, to super-efficient solar cells, the future of energy looks bright and clean. We look forward to the day where the lights can stay on, for all humanity, as storms pass and earthquakes hit.
Stay safe out there as you return home across Florida, Texas, the Southeast, and the Caribbean nations!
As the Hydrogen 2.0 ecosystem gains momentum, we’ll be sharing our views and insights on the new Hydrogen 2.0 Economy. We also update our blog every week with insightful and current knowledge in this growing energy field.