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Fraying Wires: How Policymakers Can Fix America’s Electricity Infrastructure

On any given day, half a million Americans lose power for two or more hours. Those blackouts cost our economy billions of dollars. 70 percent of the U.S. grid that delivers electricity to our homes and businesses is at least 25 years old, and comparatively we endure more outages than other developed nations. We suffer some 360 minutes of outages each year, compared with just 16 minutes for Korea, 15 for Germany, and 11 for Japan.

A new book - The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future - offers these and other insights about the challenges of modernizing America's electric grid - the set of wires and transformers that transmit and deliver power. According to the author, McGill University professor and cultural anthropologist Gretchen Bakke, our current system is "worn down, it's patched up, and every hoped-for improvement is expensive and bureaucratically bemired."

But change could be on the horizon. With a new president and Congress taking office in January, legislation to address America's deteriorating infrastructure, like bridges and lead-laden water pipes, will likely be debated. High on their list of priorities should be new policies encouraging private-sector investment and innovation in the electricity sector.

Here are four ideas from Bakke that the new Congress and administration should keep in mind as they consider legislation that will lay the groundwork for America's energy future.

On any given day, half a million Americans lose power for two or more hours. Those blackouts cost our economy billions of dollars. 70 percent of the U.S. grid that delivers electricity to our homes and businesses is at least 25 years old, and comparatively we endure more outages than other developed nations. We suffer some 360 minutes of outages each year, compared with just 16 minutes for Korea, 15 for Germany, and 11 for Japan.

A new book - The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future - offers these and other insights about the challenges of modernizing America's electric grid - the set of wires and transformers that transmit and deliver power. According to the author, McGill University professor and cultural anthropologist Gretchen Bakke, our current system is "worn down, it's patched up, and every hoped-for improvement is expensive and bureaucratically bemired."

But change could be on the horizon. With a new president and Congress taking office in January, legislation to address America's deteriorating infrastructure, like bridges and lead-laden water pipes, will likely be debated. High on their list of priorities should be new policies encouraging private-sector investment and innovation in the electricity sector.

Here are four ideas from Bakke that the new Congress and administration should keep in mind as they consider legislation that will lay the groundwork for America's energy future.

Encourage competition via data

Smart meters, internet-enabled devices that communicate detailed information to utilities about their customers' electricity use, are a first step toward reimagining our grid, Bakke notes. Yet she also points out that the devices initially offer more benefits to the utilities than to their customers. It doesn't have to be that way. Customers deserve access to their own smart meter data so they can gain more control over their energy use and costs. But right now, most Americans (even those with smart meters installed) don't have access to their own energy data in a way that's useful.

Lack of access prevents third parties and technologies, such as smart thermostats, from digesting and synthesizing data into actionable steps that increase efficiency and lower pollution. Moreover, the enormous quantities of data from these modern devices can allow state utility commissions and power companies to design rate structures and other policies that shift electricity use around the clock. This can help cut their expenses and eliminate the need for costly new and dirty "peaker" plants that operate only a few hours each year when demand is high. Policymakers should allow greater access to customer data by municipalities, third-party service providers, and customers themselves.re"]

Connect a microgrid system

Bakke pays particular attention to microgrids thereby providing greater security and reliability. She notes the U.S. military is converting all of its domestic bases to microgrids that can be "islanded" and protected during storms or other disruptions. Google is doing the same for its headquarters and data centers.

"Our grid could just as well be an amalgamation of 10,000 microgrids as a single system," writes the author. "So long as microgrids can function interoperably with each other, and do so most of the time, they are indistinguishable from the end user's point of view from the grid we already have. The difference is resiliency."

Fund the race to storage

Improving the system involves far more than simply adding lots of solar panels and wind turbines. In fact, because sun and wind aren't constant and we're still studying how best to store electricity, these new ways of cleanly making electricity add complexity to the grid's efficient and reliable operation. Bakke focuses on storage, which she calls the "holy grail" because "it allows us to build an electric world that.has the flexibility to move and change with whatever the 21st century will throw at us."

Creative legislation

Bakke correctly notes that the grid is not just a technological system. She writes that it's "also a legal one, a business one, a political one, a cultural one, and a weather-driven one." Reforming - or, as she puts it, "reimagining" - the grid requires addressing a complex collection of integrated challenges. It requires confronting the "behemoths of old power" who will oppose any transformations that threaten their profits.

She does not claim to know what the grid will look like in 30 years. Yet she argues "we now live in the era of infrastructural dreaming" of a "grid so jam-packed with computerization that it sparkles."

She forsees a common platform that "would need to be open to all the strange sorts of things people are dreaming up and building today (from vehicle to grid-enabled self-driving car pods to nanogrids) and to the boring old stuff we're stuck with for the moment (like natural gas combustion plants and old coal or nuclear)."

Bakke's perspective is critical as both Republicans and Democrats increasingly discuss ways to improve and upgrade our nation's infrastructure. While most of those debates focus on roads and water treatment facilities, perhaps the most important infrastructure is the grid.

Electricity is critical to our modern economy. The U.S. can no longer afford frequent blackouts. It needs to integrate sustainable and non-polluting resources. It must empower both consumers and entrepreneurs. It requires, according to Bakke, "a self-healing, processor-dense, intelligent grid."

Content Discussion

Joel Gordes's picture
Joel Gordes on November 17, 2016

Greetings, Dick and all,

I have read Dr. Bakke's book in detail and while I agree with much that she put forth in it, she missed out on a few points:

1) While she did make some points on energy security, she neglected to adequately point out that the SmartGrid (IoT) has the capacity to open up a huge number of additional attack surfaces for cyber intrusions.  While this is just getting notice in the popular press, it has been known now for a number of years. Aside from enhanced cyber awareness by all parties, there is no guarantee any solutions will be found soon. Ths could put a damper on the effectiveness of some microgrids unless research on waht are termed attack surface interruption zones is accelerated.

2) Throughout the book she bounces from advocacy of renewables to pointng out serous deficiencies and problems caused by them.  Nowhere did she show any real awareness of having detailed Value of Solar (VoS) studies taking place in many states that go into detail on this. Most show that those with PV systems provide equal or even more value than they are compensated for by regulators. This is a serious underestimation of value in the book.

3) While she quoted Amory and Hunter Lovins in multiple places from  their 1982 book Brittle Power (previously a DoD study) she did not, in a single place define exactly what characteristics a decentralized vs. centralized grid possesses. This is important basic information to have and pages ~214 to 228 of Brittle Power contain this.

4) Speaking of microgrids from here in ConnecticutT, she oversold what this state is actually doing. The program has had many learning problems that could have been avoided if our DEEP had taken comments on its design seriously.  The amount of money has been very limited to foster adaptation.

5) I do not recall her bringing up that new transmission (the opposite of decentrlization) receives ~9% to 11% rate of return and in the NE  if it is said to be for reliability purposes, is shared by all the states in the ISO-NE region.  This makes it tremenedously difficult for microgrids to compete economically  with cenralized systems.

6) She did not entirely explore new ownership patterns like that based on the work of Dr. Elisabeth (sic) Ostrom on Common Pool Resources which may offer promising win-win economic possbilities.

While I do recommend the book, I also urge people go back directly to Brittle Power to gain some deeper insight into the total realmof energy security which may prove to be the primary driver for renewables, DG and microgrids.

 

Best,

Joel N. Gordes, Director

Center for Energy Security Solutions

 

 

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