Securing the Nation’s Power Grid

Power Grid(Photo: Diego Iaconelli / Flickr)The week of May 7, federal regulators released a report detailing the cause of a September 2011 blackout that left millions of residents in Arizona and California without electricity. This report underscores the vulnerability of our electrical grid and reinforces the need to safeguard our grid from future outages by integrating clean local energy and intelligent grid solutions.

According to the report, the blackout was initially triggered by a transmission line failure in Arizona and then compounded by poor operations planning and a lack of real-time situational awareness. These failures resulted in cascading blackouts across the Southwest – disrupting public services, business activity and transportation systems. By the time the lights came back on, the 15-hour blackout had caused an estimated $100 million in losses.

Large-scale power outages are by no means uncommon in the United States. In fact, last September’s blackout was caused by a number of the same issues that triggered a massive 2003 outage which affected more than 50 million Americans in the Northeast and Midwest. Moreover, fears of another blackout loom in Southern California as regulators scramble to find replacement power generation for the troubled San Onofre nuclear plant, which has been offline for more than three months.

When blackouts occur, our nation’s economic engine grinds to a halt. A study by the Galvin Electricity Initiative found that blackouts cost Americans an estimated $150 billion in economic losses annually. In addition to disrupting our economy, grid failures also jeopardize public safety by impairing critical services, such as water, sewage treatment, heating and cooling. As a result, blackouts during severe winter weather or extreme heat conditions can cause life-threatening situations.

To avert future costly blackouts, the United States must modernize its energy system. Currently, the nation’s power grid is based on a 100-year old approach that centralizes power generation. Under this increasingly outdated approach, electricity is generated at remote, large-scale power stations and then transmitted long distances to population centers where the energy is actually used. As a result, this highly centralized system is vulnerable to massive failures. Any disruption in centralized power generation or transmission lines, whether from severe weather, mechanical malfunction, human error, or terrorist attack, can result in power failures affecting entire regions of the country.

Rather than continuing to invest billions of dollars to expand this brittle system, policymakers should embrace a more reliable, decentralized electrical system. Distributed generation of clean energy integrated with intelligent grid solutions will result in a far more efficient and resilient electrical system. Clean, local energy production mitigates the impact of any single power station or power line failing.  Intelligent grid solutions, such as demand response and energy storage, significantly increase grid reliability by enabling local balancing of supply of and demand for energy. Together, distributed generation and intelligent grid solutions allow for the creation of micro-grids that remain as functional “islands” during widespread grid failures and continue to provide power for essential services. This was demonstrated at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) during the Southwest blackout of September 2011 – UCSD’s microgrid allowed the campus to disconnect from the larger grid and continue normal operations.

Critics argue that distributed energy generation is too expensive. However, US communities have demonstrated that Clean Local Energy Accessible Now (CLEAN) programs (sometimes called “feed-in tariffs”) make it possible to scale local renewable energy generation quickly and cost-effectively. A CLEAN program is a proven policy tool that unleashes rapid local renewable energy development by reducing risks, transaction costs and complexities involved in selling clean energy from underused spaces in communities, such as rooftops, parking lots and landfills. These programs can be designed to have no impact on electric rates, as demonstrated in Sacramento, California, where clean, local energy costs ratepayers the same as central-station energy.

The time is now for the nation to aggressively expand clean, local energy production and invest in intelligent grid solutions to secure the power grid. As we’ve seen, the alternative is far too costly.