Power cut in Manhatten

Renewable energy could be shared between homes during power cuts

Image credit: Dreamstime

Engineers at the University of California-San Diego have developed algorithms which allow for the sharing of power from domestic renewables – such as roof-mounted solar panels – during power cuts.

During a power cut, domestic solar panels become defunct. They cannot be used to power homes, as the devices which manage these solar panels – solar invertors – are automatically switched off for safety. This unbreakable connection to the grid makes it impossible for people to turn to electricity generated from their own home during a power cut, when arguably they need it the most.

However, the team of engineers from University of California-San Diego (UC-San Diego) may have found a solution to this frustrating problem, through the development of tools which allow homes to draw on their own renewable energy sources, even when disconnected from the grid.

“We were inspired to start investigating a way to use renewable power during outages after Hurricane Sandy affected eight million people on the East Coast and left some without power for up to two weeks,” said Abdulehlah Habib, a PhD candidate at UC-San Diego.

These algorithms strategically disconnect solar inverters from the grid by prioritising the distribution of power from renewable resources. They take into account forecasts for solar and wind power generation, the amount of energy storage available, the projected energy use and the amount of energy that an entire cluster of homes could generate from their collective renewable sources.

Diagram of power sharing in a cluster of homes

UC San Diego

Image credit: UC San Diego

“Houses connected together are much more resilient during outages,” said Professor Raymond de Callafon, a mechanical engineer at UC-San Diego. “They’re also more resilient to price fluctuations. They can do a much better job at sharing resources and it benefits every house.”

Customers willing to pay extra or customers in urgent need of power (such as for life-support machinery) could be prioritised in the queue for power supply during an outrage if a priority function is included. Alternatively, the algorithms could be adjusted such that households which generate more electricity than they produce would not lose power at all during grid failures.

The tools were found to improve the reliability of the systems by 25 to 35 per cent.

The UC-San Diego tools work with existing technology, but require the installation of remote-controlled circuit breakers. “Clusters” of houses would require new technology, including a “grid forming inverter”, to be installed in order to pool and distribute electricity during power cuts.

In recent years, concerns have been raised about the vulnerability of power grids to cyber attacks, following a succession of unprecedented Russian malware attacks on the Ukrainian power grid.

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