I landed at San Diego International Airport at 4pm on Thursday. Since I sat towards the front of the plane, I was one of the first people to walk up the corridor. Suddenly, the lights went out. “Perfect timing,” the woman in front of me said.
As I walked through the airport, the lights were off, the lines had grown long. Cell phones weren’t working, and I was reminded of a zombie movie I had seen. Waiting in the late afternoon heat, I tried to remember the exact words in my colleague’s quickly written agreement to pick me up and drive me to the event.
I hoped that it was just the airport, but as we inched our way through the traffic, it was clear that San Diego had ground to a halt. Gas stations became crowded with people who literally ran out of gas and couldn’t get home. As the sunlight waned, we rushed to buy provisions (water, protein bars, etc.) at an Albertsons – possible only because it had installed fuel cells or solar panels. From the freeway we could see that University of California San Diego, which has its own microgrid, was also lit up thanks to distributed generation.
We learned that a transmission problem in Arizona had caused a possible sequence of events that included the protective functions at the nuclear power plant turning the plant off and lead to extensive power outages throughout San Diego, southern California, and parts of Mexico. The funny part? I was with a colleague from San Diego Gas and Electric, traveling to speak about our collaborative smart grid planning effort. We couldn’t help but think about how the smart grid could have helped here.
Storage and advanced grid sensing and control technologies could have isolated the problem at its source and kept it from growing. The smart grid’s ability to incorporate larger amounts of renewable energy could have kept electricity flowing. Microgrids – with their own local generation and smart technologies – could have switched to an off-grid mode and remained powered through the outage. Buildings with demand response capabilities and appropriately designed roof top solar or other forms of distributed generation, could have reduced their consumption and used smart technologies to share their power with businesses running critical equipment or with people who need air conditioning or medical equipment to maintain their health.
Smart grids can play an even bigger role after an outage is over: Electricity production is a huge source of air and water pollution– emissions from U.S. electricity production make up 30% of domestic climate change pollution and over 6% of global emissions. A thoughtfully-designed smart grid could reduce harmful emissions by up to 30% and fight against the tragedy of more than 34,000 deaths a year from power plant pollution – more lives than are lost on U.S. highways.
A greener grid will also put us at the forefront of the world’s competitive clean energy economy. A recently released Duke University report commissioned by EDF identified smart grid companies already flourishing in 37 states at 315 locations—including headquarters, manufacturing plants and hardware/software development facilities.
All of this adds up: the green grid revolution will create as many as 180,000 domestic jobs per year while saving lives. Now that’s worth standing up for.