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Our Outdated Electrical Grid: An Intolerable Situation


As outages stretch past four days for millions without the modern conveniences supported by electricity, let us hope that the cold hard fact of grid vulnerability is beginning to dawn on us all. It’s not new, it’s just that these outages only happen now and then, we are conditioned to think that there is nothing else we can do but respond as best we can, and we soon forget about them when things get back to normal. After all, who could have predicted the hurricanes hitting New Orleans (Katrina) and Houston (Ike), that led to long-term outages and accompanying societal and economic disruption? Or the freak snow storm that devastated New England last October, leaving millions without power for weeks? Or this storm that hit the mid-Atlantic without warning over the weekend? There is a pattern here: the storms may be unpredictable, but the aftermath disruptions are highly predictable – lives are lost, economic losses mount, and civilization grinds to a halt until the grid is restored and operational.

 Electricity is vital to our modern lives, but the grid that delivers it is inevitably vulnerable to disruption, whether it is from a storm or – dare I say it – manmade sabotage or cyber attacks. This is the paradox we struggle with: the nature of our historic gird paradigm is BOTH essential and vulnerable. We live every day with the risk of a devastating outage, hoping it doesn’t strike us. Until recently, we have simply tolerated this risk, if we deign to acknowledge it at all.

 If disruption is inevitable and unavoidable, the argument can be made that the utility strategy of outage restoration is inherently flawed, because it accepts inevitable loss for energy consumers – loss of life and economic loss. Now that strategy is coming under challenge. Local government and community leaders are declaring the situation intolerable, but they suggest no solutions, just frustration. Would that trying harder worked: improved vegetation management or better utility preparation offer only minor improvement to a devastating outage that takes down poles and tangles lines with downed vegetation, shuffling deck chairs as it were. Or injecting intelligence and more data; smart grid aids restoration, but still leaves outages and recovery as our only path. Finally, hardening the grid by burying distribution lines is just too expensive, beyond even the cost of smart grid.

 A paradigm shift would involve a shift in focus to outage prevention or nullification, rather than outage restoration or mitigation. In contrast to the grid, the internet is inherently stable and invulnerable, because it is designed to be distributed and highly redundant. A distributed, redundant grid would feature diverse, distributed on site energy resources that co-exist with grid electricity. Back up generators that rely on stored fuel and foul the air with noise and pollution are band aids that anticipate short term outages, they do not provide for extended outages.

 Businesses and residences that have redundant power in the form of on site energy production suffer a grid outage as more of an inconvenience, because they are self-sufficient and count on the grid as only one of several energy supply options. As a society, we should re-think our approach to electricity provisioning, to leverage the benefits of distributed, redundant energy resources that are architected in a system that more closely models the internet. Long evaluated based on how their costs compare with base load generation, distributed energy technologies like solar PV and natural gas-fired combined heat and power micro generators are measured by the wrong ruler. We should be asking if they are affordable and reliable enough to diversify our utility grid, rather than if their cost is less than the grid when it is operational and at its best.

Our problem is not utility management, nor utility execution, it is utility grid design and the exclusive provisioning of electricity by a grid that is vulnerable to disruption. In fact, our grid is vulnerable by design. The solution to utility outages and the disruption that follows lies in a new paradigm modeled on invulnerability: outage nullification, rather than outage recovery, based on a redesign that incorporates distributed elements and redundancy. We should ask more of ourselves as a society. We shouldn’t put this problem solely on our utilities. Instead, we should go back to the drawing board to determine how we can leverage all that we know today, how we can expand our ability to power our society in less vulnerable ways. We should not seek to spend more and more money to make a grid designed in 1890 fit our power needs in 2012. We should adopt a new paradigm, open the mike to those with other opinions, and import new financing and innovation options from outside the current power world. We will then see that the grid and utilities are good at what they do, but they have inherent flaws in their grid design and business model. We don’t need to put all our energy eggs in that one monopoly basket. We should instead  expand our horizons to consider new options that address the underlying design flaw and persistent vulnerability.

Content Discussion

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on July 3, 2012

When I was barely over 21 in the early 70s I got a gun permit and was night security at a downtown Bell switchboard. They told me that was where “terrorists” might strike. Looking back, what an idiot I was not even knowing what a terrorist was. A decade later I was in that same downtown pushing fiber optic computer networking and Otto Schmitt mentioned the need for EMP grid resistance.

I’m still an idiot so I avoid serious responsibility in a rural area pushing some bio-energy stuff, including some rural electric distributed generation.

I must say there are great people in the public utilities, academics, etc. who want to do just as you say. But they are usually quiet studious people, and the hell-raisers seem to have taken over. How do you tell the self-important loudmouths that this is very complicated and important? Politics is so pervasive and intense, how can it support grid stability and security?

Jessee McBroom's picture
Jessee McBroom on July 4, 2012

I can only agree that the aging grid infrastricture is in dire need of repair and upgrade. It would appear that given the nature of the grid destruction by storms that underground transmission lines could be considered. Beyong Smart Grid Utility Scale Energy Storage and residentioal UPS type storabe between line transformer and residence as some propose. The Ice Storms issue may be addressed with newly developed hydrophobic nano materials applied to transmission lines. These are currently used on airliners and turbine engines to prevent ice build up. Unless we plan to go wireless as Tesla suggested ; we will need to address our ageing electrical grid infrastructure with upgrades and advanced materials applications.

Bill Hannahan's picture
Bill Hannahan on July 4, 2012

The author mentions 5 events that made the news when large numbers of people from different regions were without power for an extended time. In most cases, most customers had power restored within two days. In most outages only a small fraction of customers are without power for a long time. The number of outages longer than two days that most American will experience is zero.

If I need reliable power due to poor health or some other reason, I would rather keep a small generator and a supply of fuel on hand rather than have my, and my neighbors, electric bill double or triple each month to pay for some Rube Goldberg once in a lifetime system that still may not work when it is needed.

The devil is in the detailed design, cost estimate and reliability analysis, none of which are present in this essay. 

Most utilities do a good job of providing reliable affordable power within the constraints they operate under, but that does not mean I support the status quo. We should continue to improve the quality of our grid. Developing the Model T of nuclear power plants, a small modular molten salt reactor that can be factory mass produced at low cost, would be the best way.


Tim Havel's picture
Tim Havel on July 5, 2012

I would encourage John Cooper, and anyone else who agrees with the gist of this article, to visit and sign their Perfect Power Declaration.

Wallace Brand's picture
Wallace Brand on July 5, 2012

The Federal Government should not pay for a grid if one is needed.  Those using the grid should pay for it.  Having the government pay for it would give an unneccessary edge to the toxic polluting conventional generation we have now.  The time is near when stationary fuel cells or other distributed generation will have an economic edge.  We should not help the conventional electric monopolies keep their monopoly status.  

Fuel Cells provide low cost base load energy without toxic pollution at ever declining costs.  It does so with small scale generating units that need no transmission towers, transmission lines, distribution poles and distribution lines.  It avoids wasted fuel for electrical losses in those transmission or distribution lines.  

We should take no action to give conventional generation an economic edge over distributed generation.

Currently, for low load factor loads, the economies of load diversities help reduce the generation needed to serve individual peak loads.  In a large integrated system, only 1 kW of generation will satisby single family homes with a peak load of 10 kW.  But for each kW of load, in addition to the one kW of generation, the new single family residential load requires the addition of 10 kW of transmission and distribution.  So when the cost of an additional kW of Transmission and Distribution is greater than the cost a kW of distributed generation, even low load factor residential loads will find fuel cells more economical.  We are reaching that point.  The DOE SECA program has reduced the cost of solid oxide fuel cells down to $700 per kW and the cost of new transmission and distribution is now up to $1500 per kW of transmission and distribution including substations.  


John Miller's picture
John Miller on July 6, 2012

The U.S. electric power grid is not perfect, but is extreme reliability compared to the rest of the developed world.  Yes, the technology used to monitor and control the current power grid is not state-of-art compared to the web, but we are dealing with mega- and kilowatts.  The fundamental design for the current grid is to provide ‘uninterruptible’ power to the vast majority of customers.  That means most anyone can turn on any electric device at any time and the power will be supplied without any constraints.  To protect against major upsets, power system overloads, and downed power lines, the current grid distribution switch gear and power plants’ overload circuit breakers are designed to protect the power equipment from damage.  In other words the current grid is designed to protect the power supply equipment first and restore power for end-users second.  Those facilities, such as hospitals, that require 100% power reliability, must have automatic backup power generation equipment.

Many ideas proposed for a smart grid can definitely improve the current system performance.  By installing many more distribution system sensors and increasing current systems flexibilities for controlling or shifting system power supply & demand loads, the reliability of the current system could definitely be improved.  What is rarely discussed is that for a smart grid to truly maximize system reliability, the current system of unlimited-uninterruptible power supply for most end-use customers must change.  A smart grid could evolve into a command-n-control system that will affect individual circuits in each residence across the country.  When a power shortage occurs, rather than just switching off an entire system branch area or neighborhood in order to restore system balance, a future smart grid could shutdown a percentage of power usage within each end-users residence.  This means that during a future storm that downs a power line, to reroute power and rebalance the system a smart grid will automatically shutdown all the TV’s, computers, non-essential lighting, etc. first, and refrigerators/freezers and HVAC systems last, in order to rebalance power supply-demand.  This may sound like a bad idea to those who assume uninterruptable power supply should always be available, but the physical reality of balancing power supply-demand with a smart grid will likely require a fundamental change in consumer expectations.  

John Miller's picture
John Miller on July 6, 2012

Willem, you are correct that cities with buried power lines and shorter power supply systems are more reliable than current overhead power lines and large, remote centralized power stations.  These solutions, however, face two very large barriers.  The first barrier is cost and the second barrier for locating new efficient power generation adjacent population centers is ‘NIMBY’.  All industrial facilities face the ‘not in my back yard’ resistance whenever anyone tries to build a structure near existing residences.  This applies to renewable wind or solar and state-of-art natural gas power plants.

Eirik Johnson's picture
Eirik Johnson on July 9, 2012

Hear, hear hear!  Well said!

The grid is obviously a mess.  But there are, I think, at least two options.  We could, as I gather you suggest, build a new and more-decentralized “smart grid” that’s more like the internet.  Or we could abandon the concept of “grid” or ‘net”except as a fall-back–more like a back-up than like the internet.  That would mean dramatic decreases in investment in the grid–reductions to rthe level of maintenance, while investing instead in building-sized rather than nation-sized electrical systems.  I think that’d probably require abandoning nuclear and coal-powered technology to the “back-up” system.  I don’t imagine anybody wants a fusion reactor in the basement or a smokestack up the elevator shaft.  It would probably require greater dependance on natural gas and perhaps butane or kerosene, or other fuels that function well in small-scale applications.  And it’d require a national consensus on whether specific solar, wind, and geothermal technologies are legitimate targets of NIMBY.  There was a time (about the same period when the earliest forms of the Grid appeared) when the automobile was NIMBY because it scared horses, killed dogs, and clogged up narrow roadways.  But national consensus eventually tolerated, then embraced, what was in 1905 regarded as a toy for rich adolescents.  The technological and socio-political advantages of energy self-sufficiency are far more blatant than was the appeal of autombiles a century ago. 

ESS isn’t “instead of” smart-grid technology.  Much of the cost and complexity of a “smart grid” is to have a centralized system impose decentralized decisions.  My guess is that th simplest and cheapest part of an ESS building would be to wire most of the structure for ten-volt DC power (like ye have in a car), confining the sort of voltage needed for refridgerators, air conditioners, toasters, or incandescent bulbs and other existing but soon-to-be-antique appliances to specific applications and rooms.  Antique electrics burned power at high voltages.  But modern electronics use low voltqage and burn up power in “vampire” adapters.  Specific remaining high-voltage applications would require smart-like priorities anyway; where the existing grid has large-scale transformers for each neighborhood and many buildings taking high-voltage power down to household voltage (110 or 120 V), an ESS building would have smaller transfers taking higher (probably 220 V) volt power down to 10 V (or to other voltages for specific appliances).

It is possible, even likely, that a national ESS (Energy Self-Suffiiciency) program would produce building-sized units of what later becomes a heavily decentralized grid much like the one you suggest–but built bottom-up, not top-down.   What would a national ESS Program look like?  A requirement for federal buildings to become independant of the power grid, which would create a market for products that states, individuals, landlords, and building co-ops or condo associations would have good reason to select too.   Because ESS costs less than paying for power, it would be no long-term burden on the Federal Budget.


Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on July 11, 2012

Somehow the grid has become a popular punching bag.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with the grid that incremental upgrades and expansion won't fix.  The notion that home or building scale power can be anywhere near as reliable as the grid is totally unrealistic.  Few consumer products have three nine of reliability in continuous duty service, .999 like the grid.

And no form of energy distribution is as safe as electrical distribution.  More gas appliances mean more fires and deaths.

There are large economies of scale in electrical power generation and transmission.  So distributed power generation is most economical for isolated rural locations.  Combine a few dozen households together in a building or neighborhood, and it's super cheap (per household) to plug into the external grid.  Also, a larger generator is more efficiency and more cost effective, emitting less pollution; it's also cheaper to service.

Moving beyond fossil fuel favors utility scale power even more.  Energy storage is inherently dangerous and does not belong in the basement below sleeping people.  The cheapest energy storage is pumped hydro and thermal energy storage, both of which are exclusively utility scale technology.  Renewables in particular greatly benefit from aggregation across large geographic areas to smooth the flow of power.

And lastly, 10V power is only good for low power applications (a few Watts), with transmission over 10 yards or so.  More than that, and the cost of copper wire is too high and the efficiency is too low.  I have 12V lights along the sidewalk in front of my house.  The last lamp on the string gets only about 7V, the copper eats the rest.

Bill Sardi's picture
Bill Sardi on July 14, 2012

On the upgrade side, there is new technology composite cable, able to reduce line loss, stronger than the current steel cable, able to conduct twice as much electricity, that is now coming available.  Even more advanced composite cable (composite is what the new Boeing dreamliners are made of) that is able to conduct 12-fold greater electricity than current power lines.  More generated power can be reclaimed by reduction of line loss than all the renewable wind and solar energy that can be generated.  Composite cable is a bit more costly but saves more power and brings more dollars to the bottom line for power generating companies.