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.
President, NextWatt Solutions and Ecomergence