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Building Resilience: Energy Policy Center Helps Regional Partners Protect Against Grid Failures

Imagine you are visiting your grandmother in a hospital where she is hooked up to oxygen or a heart monitor. Suddenly, the electricity goes out, and all the medical equipment that is keeping her alive shuts down. Or perhaps you're running a business, and a power outage occurs, causing the company to shut down for several hours, resulting in a significant loss of revenue. We rely on the electricity grid to power our daily lives from our computers, lights, and refrigerators to our cellphones and more. Even Thomas Edison would be astonished at how crucial electricity has become in powering our modern-day lives. However, our electric grid is delicate and vulnerable.

For instance, in 2003 tree branches in northeast Ohio made contact with power lines, triggering a massive power outage and blackout that affected 50 million people across eight states in the East and Midwest, as well as parts of Canada, causing power to shut off for up to four days in some regions. And this wasn't the first time that trees have brought down the grid. In 1996 a single tree toppled power lines and took out the entire grid along the West Coast.

Trees are not the only threat to the grid. Windstorms, hurricanes, floods, high usage in extremely hot weather, and cyber-attacks are just a few of the risks that could wreak havoc on the electric grid. To protect yourself in your home if the power goes out many people rely on backup generators that run on a different energy source to replace the primary grid. Hospitals, universities, and some private businesses also frequently use backup generators, which can typically keep the power on for several hours. But what if you don't have a generator, or the power goes out for a day- or even a week? Are you out of luck or is there a more enlightened way to achieve energy security?

Andrew Thomas, the Executive in Residence and administrator for the Energy Policy Center at the Levin College of Public Policy and Education, has an answer: microgrids. He has been working with Cuyahoga County and the Cities of Euclid and Brooklyn, Ohio to build local microgrids to protect businesses and residents in these covered communities. But what exactly are microgrids? They are like giant backup generators that cover an entire region. If the power goes out, the microgrid immediately comes online to keep electricity flowing. Microgrids often use sustainable energy for their power source, such as solar and wind energy. In the Cleveland area, an almost unlimited supply of natural gas can also be used. The power from microgrids is considerably cleaner and more renewable than the typical "dirty" power derived from coal and oil.

The microgrids in northeast Ohio will provide electric power that is 99.999% reliable, guaranteed not to go off for more than five minutes in a year. That is the gold standard! And the cost to consumers will be no higher than that of energy from the primary grid.

Mr. Thomas joined Cleveland State in 2008, after working as general counsel for a fuel cell company for six years. Prior to coming to Ohio, he worked 20 years in the energy industry in New Orleans, Louisiana, as a geophysicist with Shell Oil Company and as a private lawyer. He and his colleagues at the Levin College’s Energy Policy Center are at the forefront of advancing cutting-edge technologies. Their work aims to protect the safety and security of Cleveland area residents and attract businesses to northeast Ohio by providing the most resilient energy in the world. That's the power of Levin!