Black start: Your utility's emergency backup plan


Utility workers at transmission station
Black start services are constantly tested and developed even if they may never be used. Image source: NREL

With so much of society relying on a constant electrical supply, it is vital that the impact of grid outages and blackouts be minimized as much as possible. 

That’s why electrical grid operators have developed backup plans for a wide variety of events. 

Perhaps the most important of these backup plans is what is known as a black start.

Let’s take a look at what exactly black start services are, and why they’re so necessary.

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    What is black start?

    When there is a complete blackout to a state or region, power plants must have the ability to start up and reboot their systems. That’s why state and regional system operators of the electrical grid - Pennsylvania-Jersey-Maryland (PJM), for instance -  must develop contingency plans to ensure the region's electrical needs are met. Perhaps the most important of these contingency plans are black start capabilities.

    The black start process is a critical part of a power system's ability to restart components during or after a blackout. A black start system has designated generating units that can be started from an on-site auxiliary generator, without help from a power supply. These generators then allow for the power system restoration plan to take place and bring the rest of the power grid’s resources back online through the transmission system.

    Once the isolated power stations are restarted individually using black start units, they’re gradually reconnected to one another through the transmission lines, to form an interconnected system. Black start resources are important to ensure the safe and reliable operation of electrical power systems.

    When is black start necessary?

    Possessing black start capabilities on a large scale is vital for maintaining the reliability and functionality of the electrical grid. However, there are certain circumstances where black start capabilities can be valuable on a smaller scale as well.

    Some recent events which required black start services were the wildfires in California, and winter storms in Texas, both in 2021. These events cause mass blackouts and require large-scale black start capabilities.

    Unfortunately, in major events such as a grid overload or a natural disaster, black start services can take days to restore the electrical system. Take for example Hurricane Ian in 2022, during which the electrical grid was taken down. During this period some populations were left without power for weeks afterward.

    In these events, houses or businesses would benefit greatly from possessing their own emergency backup power. Instead of relying on the electric utility services and potentially waiting days or even weeks for electricity, you could have your lights back on immediately.

    Now you may be wondering how you could possess black start capabilities at your home. So let's find out what options you have and if solar power generation can be the solution.

    Can residential solar systems provide black start?

    Black start is used specifically in the context of utilities. If you’re wondering about what to do for emergency power in your home, there are a couple of options for you.

    For a while, the main way that homeowners or business owners could possess emergency backup power would be to own a fossil-fuel-operated generator. For organizations where a constant power supply is essential such as hospitals or supermarkets, fossil fuel generators have been the most common solution to restore the power. However, natural gas turbines or diesel generators will generate emissions and will also inevitably run out of fuel. That’s why more people are looking at renewable energy resources as emergency backup power.

    Any solar panel system that is islanded from the electrical grid will possess emergency backup power. Islanding your system can be as simple as adding a solar battery to your system. Solar systems with energy storage can provide black start capabilities and can continue to power your home even when the electrical grid is down.

    Learn more: Using solar as a backup power source

    Calculate how much it will cost to install solar-plus-battery-storage for your specific home

    Generac generator

    Many businesses use auxiliary generators such as this to provide backup power during an outage or grid shutdown. Image source: Generac

    How you can gain energy independence

    Energy independence means meeting all your energy needs from solar power and not requiring any assistance from the electrical grid. Perhaps the best way of doing this is by installing a solar power system paired with an energy storage system.

    Gaining energy independence and having the ability to island your home from the electrical grid means that you’re more protected from grid outages and rising electrical rates. 

    There’s no better time to get backup power for your home. There are a number of high-quality solar batteries available such as the Tesla Powerwall and the LG Chem Prime. It could also be more affordable than you think with many incentives and rebates available.

    Find out what solar system size you need to offset 100% of your electricity usage

    Key takeaways

    • Black start is the power system's ability to restore the electrical grid after or during a blackout.
    • Black start services restore the electrical grid using a system of integrated generators that can be started from an on-site auxiliary generator, without help from a power supply.
    • In the event of a natural disaster or major grid outage, black start services are vital for maintaining the reliability and functionality of the electrical grid.
    • Installing solar panels with an energy storage solution can give your home the emergency backup power it requires.
     - Author of Solar Reviews

    Cameron Bates

    Blog Author

    Cameron is a business analyst and content specialist at SolarReviews.

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