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For one hundred plus years, our grid and the utilities that operate it have worked like a loyal plow horse, getting the job done, even as we hardly noticed the tremendous value they created and maintained daily. Sure, occasionally we’d suffer an outage, but we could always count on the lights coming back on in short order. But recent extreme weather should give all of us pause to contemplate some of our long-held, implicit assumptions regarding electricity. At the very least, the heat wave and outages this past week should stimulate a broad dialogue about how we live and how we provide ourselves with electricity. Beyond the recent heat wave and  the widespread Mid-Atlantic outages, lurking cyber security threats as the grid digitizes and the ever looming risk of terrorist sabotage make us naïve to assume that our power will always be automatically there, affordable and reliable, like that plow horse out in the barn, ready to help us to bring in the harvest.

We can hope that the next storm (and the next, and the next) will pass us by, or that the next time the lights go out, they will come back on soon, but the consequences of failure are just too high to leave our collective future in the hands of the electric industry, its regulators and fate, both now and going forward. Our utilities have done and will continue to do a great job, but they need broad support to conceptualize a more modern electric power system, one that is not just smart, but also strong. First things first, we must recognize that without a reliable and operational grid, as a society we are sunk. Our grid is so essential, it must not only be modernized, but also hardened where most vulnerable, and then complemented with non-grid power resources that provide a true grid alternative, much more than simple back up reserves from diesel generators and lead acid batteries.

Electricity is the 21st Century’s Quintessential Energy

Electricity is invaluable, and we don’t have workable alternatives to the grid right now. Consider that electricity supports 1) infrastructure: Electricity is essential to telecommunications, information, water, wastewater, natural gas, and petroleum infrastructures that define modernity; 2) economy: Electricity is essential to clearing economic transactions and operating markets; 3)  health: Electricity is essential to health care, air conditioning, heating, medicine distribution, etc.; 4) digital: Electricity is essential to the digital universe of gadgets and tools, server farms and websites; domestic and commercial appliances and machinery: Electricity is essential to our labor saving devices, at home and at work. This list could go on, the point is made: Electricity is our foundation.

Ensuring the reliable provisioning of such quintessential electricity requires us to build a strong foundation for today and tomorrow. A Strong Grid must provide power affordably and efficiently, regardless of economic ups and downs, but also at a sufficient price to support the health of the system, so that economic woes don’t also bring down our electricity distribution system. A Strong Grid must provide power reliably and consistently (no excuses), regardless of human error, poor planning and extreme weather events. A Strong Grid must provide both security and redundancy, where operational excellence makes the grid secure, and alternative power sources make the larger energy ecosystem immune to disruption when the grid is challenged, whether by storms, fire, cyber hacking or terrorist sabotage to field installations. In short, our societal goal should be relatively simple but profound: “We must always have electricity there when we need it.”

We have not yet arrived at the point where we can state with confidence that such a goal has been met. We can’t always count on the grid to be there. The grid, as complex as it is, still relies on traditional business and operational practices. Despite recent progress, the grid is not yet smart, nor is it lean. Rather, it is historically overbuilt to overcome the lack of efficient, cost effective energy storage. For as good a job as operators do, the grid still cannot be relied upon to provide power no matter what. Utilities don’t benchmark reliability to a world standard to reduce service level interruptions during normal operations, for instance. And the grid, as we all saw this week, remains vulnerable to disruptions from extreme weather events. As we may see at some point in the future – hopefully, never, but still – the grid may yet succumb to cyber and physical threats as well.

Grid Modernization
A Smart Grid – or better, The Advanced Smart Grid, as we called it in our recent book, is both imperative and inevitable, given the march of technology and the increasingly apparent value in data-driven systems that empower individuals. Modernization is a vital feature of a Strong Grid as well – it must start with new architecture: redesigning the utility will both support and leverage a digital platform and applications and enable more renewable and distributed energy sources to be added. Adding digital sensors and controls will benefit field operations, reduce operating costs and enable new services. And analyzing data will yield insights that will transform the utility business. A Smart Grid is not necessarily a Strong Grid – it could still be that making the grid smart makes it less strong (see Cyber Security). But it can be both smart and strong with sufficient forethought and will.

Grid Hardening
A Strong Grid is a harder grid, harder than it is now. A sound defense against threats must involve hardening and physically securing certain aspects of today’s grid that are just too vulnerable. Some utilities are already replacing wooden poles with more sturdy material, for instance, and some utilities bury new lines when the opportunity arises, securing them from environmental threats. Measures to ensure cyber security are well documented, but have a long way to go to protect the grid from crippling on line threats. Physically the grid is too far flung and too wide open to physical threats, but it may be that only an attack will lead the public to support budgets to finance hardening grid assets down to the substation level. As for the recent extreme weather, while some mitigation may be found in following strict vegetation trimming guidelines, and more mitigation still in preparing resources to react in the event of a major outage, these measures offer little protection against major weather events like hurricanes, tornadoes, freak wind events like the Derecho of 2012 (as I saw it called yesterday), or wildfires such as those that struck near my home in Central Texas last year, or flooding as in Houston and New Orleans. Hardening by burying lines has finite limits; a solid defense of the grid against these threats is just too expensive a solution. So we must seek reliability elsewhere, in grid alternatives that complement the grid’s low cost with enhanced reliability, providing more bang for the buck than a grid going it alone.

Grid Complements
Nature shows us the value of redundancy, over and over again as it were. We would be silly to ask if a tree or a vine were “better” or “at parity,” because they each represent alternative strategies to cope with challenging environments – a tree’s stability in a root system and trunk that fix the tree into the ground and make it able to withstand the elements, and a vine’s resiliency in a rapidly spreading root system shooting up multiple vines, well equipped to reach the sunlight rapidly, wherever it may be, without the expense and time of a trunk. Likewise, complements to the grid are no match for the grid’s low cost during normal operations, but provide a far more resilient solution in the face of extreme threats. Such a complementary energy solution would be provided by third parties, not subject to utility constraints. It would rely principally on renewable energy fuels like the sun, the wind, and heat from the earth to provide low to no carbon impacts. And it would feature small power plants, smaller than utility power plants, but far greater in number, and located off the grid, near to or better, on site, next to the load that they serve. Like the vine, this strategy is meant to adapt to an extreme and unpredictable environment, providing multiple small bets in order to achieve far greater reliability and resiliency.

Strength beyond the Grid

An October 2011 report by the Brookings Institution Energy Security Initiative and the Hoover Institution Shultz-Stephenson Task Force on Energy Policy, entitled “Assessing the Role of Distributed Power Systems in the U.S. Power Sector” provides an authoritative review of the need and potential of such a complementary scheme to shore up the vulnerabilities of the grid. The opening paragraph of the foreword is a grabber, and the documentation throughout the report is thorough and compelling.

“The provision of reliable and secure energy to meet the growing demands of this century, in a way which mitigates the adverse effects of climate change, is an existential challenge to the human enterprise. A failure to meet the challenge would pose grave risks to the functioning of world economies, the nature of societies and our endangered ecosphere. In fact, the degree of success in this area will be a big determinant of whether this will be the best or the worst century for humankind.“

As we discovered with the internet, a connected network enables the emergence of peer-to-peer solutions that can bypass traditional distributors, as with Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica, Craig’s List and newspaper classified ads, iTunes and Tower Records, and NetFlix and Blockbuster. Given our voracious appetite for energy, the density of fossil fuel energy, and the relative immaturity of renewables, we will not soon obsolete the grid with peer-to-peer energy alternatives. But recognition and promotion of grid alternatives offers a way to stimulate similar viral uptake of diverse, on site power. Provisioning power at the site of consumption brings greater reliability to the grid, in recognition of the grid’s limitations.

Finally, let us not throw the baby out with the bathwater. This essay offers no criticism of the modern utility and grid, remarkable accomplishments that have taken us a long way. But we should recognize inherent limitations in light of recent events, and consider alternatives to grid power in a new light, not as substitutes to affordable and reliable grid power, but as complements to provide greater resiliency and security in the face of any number of significant threats. Acknowledgement of such realities is the first step on the path to addressing challenges. As a society, we have the choice to adopt new perspectives, change our dialogue, and step off this treadmill of Disaster, Despair, Repair, Repeat.

Image Credit: Tom Plesnik/Shutterstock