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On Securing the Power Grid and Our Way of Life

I couldn't agree more with the points you expressed well in your essay. But I would go a step futher: beyond smart and secure, the grid needs to be redundant.

I use the term "strong grid" to describe a grid that is 1) smart, so that it minimizes the occurence of outages and when they do occur, ensures rerouting around specific damage to minimize the extent on other portions of the grid, then the rapid recovery through pinpointing root causes of the outage; 2) secure, whether it be through cyber security measures that protect it from cyber threats or from grid hardening of key assets to protect it from physical threats; and 3) redundant, so that even if all of our best efforts at making it smart and secure are defeated, we are confident that we have access to non-grid power to service our critical needs, even if the outage is extended. In other words, a redundant grid would take measures to identify critical loads and use decentralized generation and storage, beyond diesel generators, UPS, and battery banks, to create a system that has layers of resources and can guarantee reliability.

Only with these three steps can energy consumers be confident that they have access to electricity when they need it. This is a new way of looking at power, as an essential commodity that is not subject to disruption. The Strong Grid perspective sets the bar higher, but it is a worthy goal for a society that is increasingly dependent on electricity.

August 12, 2012    View Comment    

On ‘Energy rationing’ ≠ a smart grid.

I applaud Steve's reasoning and conclusions in this well written argument, especially his last sentence, "that utilities, regulators and customers should have a strong interest in wringing efficiencies from the grid itself first rather than just hectoring customers to change when and how they use electricity."

Historically, regulators have approved capital investments into rate base to ensure system reliability, with the understanding that over the long term, those investments would be paid for in rates by a captive ratepaying public that approximated society at large. In other words, investing in the grid owned by utilities was a societal good because it ensured a reliable electric infrastructure. Because the grid was virtually the sole supplier of electricity back in the day, the grid was built with tremendous reserve capacity so that it could serve the dramatic increase in system load on critical peak days (e.g., a few late afternoons in September in much of the US). That strategy worked quite well, as Steve attests, but it has been an expensive approach to keep investing in more supply side resources, rather than more efficiency.

The question of demand side solutions has been raised for some time, but rarely have such options received serious consideration because the entire ecosystem was oriented around supply side solutions - more generators, more wires, more fuel. As for eliminating waste, requiring grid operators to get more out of their systems with more efficient operations is difficult and unlikely to result in large benefits for the shareholders at any rate. In contrast, approving advanced meter investment has merits and promise for a demand side focus, finally, and it is a solution that also works for shareholders, and especially makes sense when the federal government has subsidized significant costs of this route. But the promise of AMI to reduce peak hinges on multiple additional steps to meet its goal of changed user behavior and peak shifting, making it a higher risk prospect to acheive its stated goals than appears at first glance.

In contrast, what if distribution automation had gone first, requiring zero cooperation from consumers? Such grid modernization would attack those operational inefficiencies directly in control of engineers and operators, systematically driving out waste and improving system reliability. And direct solutions with fewer contingencies have a higher probabilty of success. But there's more to it than that. Having wrung every efficiency they could out of grid optimization, utilities could go back to the regulators with their next plan, to move on to collaboration with system users to elimiate wasteful behavior on the demand side. And they would have the advantage of having saved customers money by going first on their supply side, thereby deferring rate increases, and thus making a stronger argument to move on to the next logical step: AMI, MDM, digital billing, TOU rates, DR programs, leading to changed user behavior and peak shifting.

I personally believe we need all of the above - grid optimization, system effciencies, greater reliabilty, improved security, and peak shifting to avoid additional capital expenses - but the questions in considering these options should include Which step is most effective? Which has the highest probability of success? and Which has the highest ROI? - thereby providing the most bang for the buck with the least disruption.

July 18, 2012    View Comment    

On The Strong Grid: Beyond Smart

Bill, I didn't set out to provide a prescription to all our energy ills, rather my assessment that our system is broken and needs a different perspective, or we will suffer repeats of this past weekend's outages with the next storm. Brookings and Hoover, the source I cite in the final section, use over 100 pages to assess the potential of distributed systems. I would suggest you go there for answers to your three questions.

Distributed systems would not have "handled the storm," (I'm not sure that anything would), but they would have ensured that those left without grid power had an alternative, the concept of a grid complement that I believe is described well in this essay.

Simple common sense tells me that a grid that is subject to repeated disruption by extreme weather is not a reliable grid. Utility accounts of this extreme storm refute your idea that tree trimming would have prevented most long term outages - downed poles and tangled wire simply take time to restore.

I happen to agree with your final statement, that the utility should do more than simply restore the grid then seek cost recovery in a future rate case, while asking for patience from those disrupted. The utility would be providing a valuable service if it took responsibility for those impacted most by long term outages by providing the alternative of a substitute for grid power, such as small portable generators, to help tide them over.

July 10, 2012    View Comment