October 13, 2015
Major weather events often cause cities to look at their infrastructures and systems. In 1888, an historic snowstorm led to changes in New York City’s electrical system. Leading up to that time, power companies installed their lines overhead to speed up electrification of the city. That spring, a powerful nor’easter storm led to the collapse of the city’s electrical system, leaving many without power for days and creating hazardous conditions on the streets. By the 1890s, power companies buried much of the copper and wood that supported the electrical system underground.
More than a century later, the East Coast faced another historic weather event — Hurricane Sandy — that led to renewed interest in energy system improvements. A strong hurricane is always a problem for the grid; how quickly a utility can bring back power to those who lose it is a crucial indicator of a utility’s performance. But many, including the power companies, had never experienced — nor anticipated — anything like Sandy before, in which 10 million people were left without power.
The impact of Hurricane Sandy hit home for one UL employee in particular. Lisa Salley, VP and GM of the Energy and Power Technologies Division at UL, was one of the 10 million in Philadelphia at the time, tending to her elderly father and not anticipating the storm would take out power for an entire week. With generators long sold out at nearby stores, she relied upon her engineering background to build her own power source with car batteries and a converter, using the stored energy to light a room, cook and power critical medical equipment.
Not everyone can build their own energy source, but with the slow shift away from total reliance on centralized stations and the move toward microgrids and distributed energy sources, every home or business has the potential to become a self-sustaining power system. Moreover, Hurricane Sandy helped power new interest in renewable energy technologies. Following the storm, municipalities sought UL’s help in developing battery storage systems, while insurance companies sought UL’s guidance in understanding the risks of using storage systems for renewable energy sources. In addition to helping provide stability in times of weather disasters, battery storage will become a necessary part of the overall energy supply system as more of the country moves toward use of renewable energy for base load power.
Since Hurricane Sandy, UL has continued to advance its standards and guidelines to help ensure the safe development of battery storage systems. Last summer, UL released 9540, a safety standard for energy storage systems.
Once again, a storm that exposed vulnerabilities in the energy infrastructure has led to innovation and changes that will create a better, more efficient and reliable grid.