Threats to our Electric Grid, our Economy and our Security (Part 1 of 3)

We don’t pay much attention to the frailty of the power grid until outages strike our homes and communities. We tend to a micro view, only noticing the failings of our local powerlines when they are disrupted.

Stepping back to look at our grid from a macro vantage across the United States, we’re in bad shape. Our grid isn’t maintained to the level it needs to be, and the lack of investment has culminated in major problems.

Electrical outages in the US are growing at an alarming and unnatural rate. It’s not merely an issue of individual inconvenience; our society is built atop energy at its core. To put the magnitude of the issue in perspective, consider this:

“America has the highest number of outage minutes of any developed nation — coming in at about 6 hours per year, not including blackouts caused by extreme weather or other ‘acts of God’. Compare this with Korea at 16 outage minutes a year. Italy at 51 minutes. Germany at 15, and Japan at 11.” — The Grid by Gretchen Bakke

For a global leader like the US, that’s worryingly fragile and economically consequential. It’s also dangerously insecure and presents a matter of national security. Global leadership starts with the basic infrastructure on which the rest is built. We need to invest to solve this crisis.

Before jumping to the solution, let’s start by understanding the problem. Our grid has many pain points, but several rise to the top.

Flora and Fauna

Unlike much of Europe, where they’ve buried many of the wires, the US still has much of its grid above ground, suspended from wooden poles. Ever-growing branches in neighboring trees, left untended and untrimmed, continuously threaten to bring down the wires. Even on sunny days, contact with trees shorts entire circuits as wires sag under heat and power load.

In those trees, squirrels wreak havoc on powerlines. According to the Washington Post, squirrels cause about 10–20% of outages. Believe it or not, squirrels gnawing on wires have taken out NASDAQ twice now. Trees and squirrels generate a huge portion of the outages and some of the most consequential ones.

On August 14, 2003, the entire Northeast was hit by an extensive outage that started as the result of overgrown trees. It was exacerbated by a software bug, but it started with a tree. The American Public Power Association published an article a couple years ago that provides a useful infographic — trees and squirrels featured prominently.

Storms

This one is intuitive. Storms blow branches wildly about. Storms also bring rain and snow that weigh down and break branches. The branches hit wires, and the grid goes down. (Yes, in many cases it’s a combo of storms plus untended trees.)

Storms account for a huge percentage of outages, particularly along the Eastern seaboard. Of course, we’re all familiar with Hurricane Sandy, but it’s a high frequency problem with lesser storms as well.

Ironically, the grid recently went down in my neighborhood as the result of a snow storm. While it’s easy to say “that’s life”, it’s worth noting that at the time of this writing, there were 28 areas in New York experiencing outages of varying degrees.

Software and Cyberattacks

In the Northeast Blackout of 2003, a software bug in First Energy’s alarm system played a starring role, stalling response from First Energy in Ohio while cascading imbalances took out the grid across the entire Northeast. Software issues don’t feature highly in total number of outages, but with the 2003 event, magnitude of impact ranks high.

The First Energy event also highlights the key role software plays and that system issues can generate widespread consequences. That’s why cyberattacks are exceptionally worrisome.

So far, the reality of cyberattack on US grids has been minimal. Nonetheless, cyberattacks on the Ukrainian grid in 2015 are sobering. They underscore the viability and magnitude of cyberattacks as a weapon. A second attack on the Ukrainian grid occurred this past December.

If motivated hackers can get into Ukrainian utility systems (or those of major financial institutions and technology companies in US, for that matter), they can get into utility systems here as well. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. The problem is pronounced because our grid is so centralized, presenting a set of big, meaty targets for the motivated.

“The grid is extremely vulnerable to disruption by cyber- or other attack. Our adversaries already have the capability to carry out such an attack. The consequences of a large-scale attack on the US grid would be catastrophic for our national security and economy.” — The Grid by Ted Koppel

Snipers and Saboteurs

It’s not only cyberattacks that are problematic. Snipers present a real threat to the grid. Yes, snipers. On multiple occasions, well-placed bullets have taken out a grid, bringing down a transformer or critical piece of the network.

It happened last October in Utah, when a sniper with a high-powered rifle took out power for 13,000 Utah residents. On April 16, 2013, several coordinated attackers fired on the Metcalfe Transmission System, taking out 15+ transformers and wreaking $15 million in damage.

Our infrastructure is exposed to physical attack, and here too the centralized nature of our generation and transmission infrastructure makes for sizable, broad-sided targets. In fact, a Wall Street Journal article in 2014 noted that sabotage at nine key substations could take out the entire grid coast-to-coast.

Intermittency

Lastly, I’ll point out that renewable generation, while part of the answer, also creates challenges. Both wind and solar tend to produce intermittently and at specific times of day. Those characteristics generate surges and generation deficits that challenge the grid. The more wind and solar on a given grid, the more destabilizing things can become.

Wind turbines in the Columbia River Gorge highlight both sides of the problem. On January 5, 2009, the wind just stopped blowing, which persisted for several weeks thereafter, reducing power generation to zero. A year later, on May 19, 2010, the wind picked up so rapidly and aggressively that the 1,000+ wind turbines pushed “almost two nuclear power plants worth of extra power” down the line. Both extremes challenge the grid to provide a dynamic, instantaneous response.

(Note, the commentary here is not to undermine the progress of renewables, but rather, to highlight an increasingly challenging characteristic that needs to be addressed to maintain their rate of growth and adoption.)

Meeting the Challenge

All the issues above are exacerbated by the fact that the bulk of the grid is over 20 years old, highly centralized and vulnerable. Our grid is not secure. It also lacks the dynamism necessary to balance itself fluidly in anomalous scenarios, isolating issues and enabling self-sufficient sub-grids to operate independently.

This is about far more than climate change. It’s about ensuring resilience of our cities, minimizing economic downsides and delivering national security.

As significantly, it’s also about economic upside. Modernizing our grid is key to achieving the innovation and outcomes of tomorrow that will present the next platform for national growth. We simply cannot afford to lose our position as the world leader in energy.

The solution is fundamentally about driving toward a more distributed and dynamic grid. The Enernet.

Of course, distributed generation is part of it, but a lot of attention is already focused there. More focus is merited on distributed energy storage, microgrids, virtual power plants, and the regulatory backdrop slowing down progress on those fronts. Security also needs to be a focus around the whole. From where I sit, those are among the most strategic priorities to address the many issues and consequences of what’s outlined above.

Meeting the challenge will require support from both sides of the political aisle. The good news is that the economy, resilience, and national security are priorities across party lines. I’m hopeful we’ll see movement and proposals that bridge the political divide.

Come senators, representatives, governors and mayors. Let’s get to it and make the grid a shining example of our national foresight, strength, capability, resolve, and resilience.

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