Disaster Immunity

Tuesday, September 30, 2008 - 7:00pm

Hurricane Katrina helped ECE power researcher, Alexis Kwasinski, formulate a new plan for the U.S. telecom system: a de-centralized telecom architecture that would have kept the lights and the phones on in New Orleans.

Professor Kwasinski contends that a microgrid network with its own power sources, independent control, and immunity from disasters in other locations would be more dependable, efficient, and cost effective than traditional telecom power systems. Microgrids would also be a quick and inexpensive way to include renewable energy sources for both existing and developing systems.

There has been surprisingly little research on disaster damage and restoration of telecommunications systems, says Dr. Kwasinski. My survey of the Gulf coast after Katrina showed how devastating a single downed line or incapacitated generation station can be. The answer is redundancies—redundant sources of power, redundant energy storage devices, and redundant multiple-input converter modules.

Since the communications industry standard is high power direct current (DC) local networks, Kwasinski is exploring DC generation systems using a microgrid-based telecom power plant with a modular distributed architecture. Energy would come from a mixture of renewable energy sources, microturbines, fuel cells, and interconnection to the existing utility grid. Multiple converters would isolate short circuit currents and—since the utility grid is a secondary source—protect against surges and failures.

The savings would be generous. Microgrids could sell excess power to the utility grid. Operational costs decrease because of reduced energy storage, less down time, equipment operating at maximum efficiency, lower hardware expense, and a budget based on energy costs.

I think the most exciting aspect of the research is how flexible this approach is, says Dr. Kwasinski. It works for developing countries who can add components to the system as they can afford it. Existing systems can easily be retrofitted with a microgrid system operating as a secondary distribution method. Small devices like solar panels and windmills can be added ad hoc, making for a painless transition to renewable energy at a competitive cost.