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Without an Optimized Electric Grid: We Will be Back in Black

The United States’ power grid is in a state of serious degradation. It earns a terrifying grade of D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers, but electric power is vital to our critical infrastructure.  It is considered essential for society to function, so it is unacceptable for the US to operate a power grid that is at such a high risk of failure.

The Current System Isn’t Working

Our aging energy transmission system is poorly prepared to minimize widespread blackouts when power grid problems arise.  Transmission systems are interconnected to a point that a failure in one area can potentially cause power outages that spread like wildfire to other regions.  The most often cited example of this is the 2003 Northeast blackout that cut power to not only the Northeast United States, but much of Ontario as well.  This power outage was caused by a tree branch that damaged a transmission line and sent power disruptions cascading along connected systems.  Such an event is extremely rare, although it does expose serious weaknesses in our current grid structure.

NOAA satellite image of Northeast US and southern Ontario in the midst of 2003 blackout  (9:03pm EDT Aug. 14, 2003) Image courtesy of NOAA.gov

NOAA satellite image of Northeast US and southern Ontario in the midst of 2003 blackout (9:03pm EDT Aug. 14, 2003) Image courtesy of NOAA.gov

The leading causes of blackouts are extreme weather and increasing electric demand.  Luckily, these factors are spurring utilities to invest billions of dollars to upgrade and protect transmission systems.  The stronger storms and severe weather attributed to climate change are especially powerful wake-up calls for utilities and grid operators.  If such upgrades are to be effective however, they must account for the inevitable shift in power generation resources and integration of renewable energy and distributed generation.  These generation resources must be built into our 21st century power system, and if they are not successfully integrated, then our grid as we know it will certainly fail.

When blackouts, brownouts, and voltage fluctuations occur, the reason for failure is usually traced back to an isolated cause, such as a hardware malfunction or human error.  A 2014 study, entitled “Blackouts: a sociology of electrical power failure,” urges us to see a bigger picture. The paper, written by Steve Matthewman of the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and Hugh Byrd from the University of Lincoln, United Kingdom, explains that focusing on such isolated causes “. . . obscures the systemic nature of accidents and network failures, which are the outcome of relations between people, technical systems, resources, institutions, regulatory frameworks, environmental conditions and social expectations.”  In other words, isolated incidents like hardware malfunctions and severe weather damage are the direct causes of blackouts, but the big picture indicates that these failures are a product of the overall system design.  This design is no longer compatible with the needs of society and advancing technology.

A Practical New Design Idea

Studies are now uncovering a new model for electric transmission that might better suit our 21st century energy distribution needs.  A 2014 paper titled “Does Size Matter?” suggests there may be an ideal size for electric transmission networks.  This study, authored by B.A. Carreras, D.E. Newman, and Ian Dobson of the University of Alaska, Charles III University of Madrid, and Iowa State University respectively, uses an innovative mathematical model to analyze the risk of blackouts.   The model represents different elements of the electric grid such as transmission lines, loads, generators, and demand.  Various parameters approximate the behavior of the electric grid under different circumstances.  After studying the outcome of grid simulations through the model, the researchers suggest, “there is a size at which the balance between more efficient distribution of power leading to a reduction of relative frequency of failures and risk of ever larger cascading failure is optimized.”

Theoretically, there might be a transmission network size that not only distributes power efficiently, but carries lower risk and frequency of grid failure (i.e. blackouts).  Building networks at this optimal size can drastically cut the potential for cascading blackouts, and increase the security of our electric grid.  The authors suggest that loosely coupling the optimized networks together could be a way to exploit “the best of both worlds.”  Loosely coupled networks communicate with each other, but can operate independently.  So, if one portion of the grid fails, the problem can be isolated to that particular network and thus contained to one area instead of affecting all connected systems.

Protecting Power From Climate Change

Strengthening our system against blackouts caused by severe weather is a prime concern, and it is highly likely that climate change is the culprit of more severe weather.  A report by Climate Central concluded that,

A large majority of the major power outages and electricity disturbances that occurred from 2003-2012 were caused by severe weather, including storms, hurricanes, heat waves, and tornadoes. Nearly 150 million customers (which means likely well over 300 million people) were affected by these weather-related power outages.

If optimally sized network sizes are an answer to grid security, it is essential to transition to renewable generation.  Sources such as distributed solar and wind power are well suited to power small networks.  According to this study, updating the power grid with renewable installations and networks of optimal reliability size might be the best strategy to fortify our power system for the future.

A grid reliant on fossil fuels would make such a small-network system impossible due to the sheer cost of constructing power plants.  Small-scale distributed coal power just isn’t feasible (the egregious amounts of air pollution caused by fossil fuels don’t make them an attractive fuel source either).  When the grid finally converts to renewable energy, the possibilities for small networks, microgrids, and distributed generation explode.  Abolishing a huge interconnected grid could protect our power supply from systemic failures arising from extreme weather, cyber attacks, and heavy demand.  Renewable energy can not only clean up our air, but provide a more secure (and even smarter) electric grid.

Diagram illustrating how distributed generation system limits system vulnerability.  Image courtesy of engineering.com

Diagram illustrating how distributed generation system limits system vulnerability. Image courtesy of engineering.com

The relative infrequency of failures on the electric grid now offers a false sense of security.  After all, if a tree branch sways into a transmission line and no one is around to fix it, it can apparently cause an epic cascading blackout.   While haphazard mechanical grid failures such as the blackout of 2003 are fairly rare, the leading cause of power outages is only going to get worse.  Weather related blackouts are increasing in step with the severe storms, and extreme temperatures attributed to climate change.

If the current state of the electric grid does not change and no significant updates are made to it, frequent blackouts and system failures will soon be an inevitable (and common) reality.  Our choice is to either upgrade our infrastructure to integrate new generation sources now, or suffer the consequences later.

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  • https://sites.google.com/site/solarwindandnuclear/dothemath fireofenergy

    I believe that humanity must work on at least 7 things… wind, solar, storage, nuclear, electric cars, putting trade sanctions on countries that commit deforestation and, of course, building, strengthening and interconnecting the grid!
    Each watt of solar is only 10 to 12 square inches, why should it cost more than a few cents per watt to mass produce?
    Battery storage, too is quoted as being like over $200 per kWh (to buy). So why is it that I can buy batteries “at almost full retail” from ebay that are already as cheap or cheaper than that? Utilities must be able to get them for far less in mass quantity. And nuclear is often overlooked even though it is currently, the only proven technology that could forever end the excess CO2 problem, power 10 billion people AND power the machinery to “clean up our mess”.
    We also need to expose the biofuels fetish for what it really is: a very inefficient source of energy that leads to further unsustainability and takes away the ability for soil to do its job (and sequester CO2).

  • Jessica Kennedy

    I think you’re right! We need to get renewables on the grid, and we need to do it intelligently so we can get the most energy for the least cost. Price for technology is decreasing – hopefully the cost of renewable energy will drop below fossil fuels before long.
    Nuclear can help for sure, but there are toxic ramifications for that too. Eventually our grid must be smart, clean and sustainable!

  • http://www.enernoc.com Jon Hartnett

    Peak pricing for electricity is truly based on the 8% of the year the grid is in imbalance. Managing demand load, avoiding peak charges, and reducing consumption during these times are the most cost effective way we can change behavior to avoid costs. Just one of the many great EE and sustainable options available.

  • Jessica Kennedy

    Thanks for your input Jon!
    You’re right! Energy efficiency and peak load reduction is hugely important for our grid stability – right now.
    Going forward however, we’ll need to seriously change the way we handle energy – or it simply won’t work anymore. There are too many infrastructure problems, energy poverty issues, and most importantly – pollution problems with burning fossil fuels, to continue operating our grid as it is. As we make infrastructure improvements we should optimize our energy structure to meet requirements of end-users.
    Utilities have always operated as if consumer energy consumption is not something they can feasibly change – and to meet those needs utilities will need better energy generation and transmission tools at their disposal.