Nightmare on Main Street

THE POWER GRID VERSION OF BOMB SHELTERS

Published In: EnergyBiz Magazine November/December 2012

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PERHAPS THE MOST IMPORTANT energy story of the summer deserves revisiting.

India suffered through massive blackouts that spilled across regions with a combined population about twice that of the United States.

The televised images of that outage were easily compartmentalized and dismissed. Here was a far-off undeveloped country.

It can't happen here.

Thinking about the Indian power calamity, I recalled admonitions from grid and cyber security experts in the United States that it is only a matter of time before terrorists, criminals or a hostile state disrupts the power grid in this country.

World War III, should it come, or the next 9/11, is likely to be a massive digital invasion that will be unprecedented in its ability to disrupt the normal lives of tens of millions of Americans far removed from any physical battlefield.

Picture a twin assault on our power grid that would be both physical and cyber.

Transmission experts have told me that small explosions that bring down remote, unprotected pylons could cause cascading mayhem on the power grid affecting distant cities and regions.

Couple that with a coordinated cyber attack on the power supply system, and America's strategic and economic strength in the world fade to darkness.

The consequences can barely be fathomed. What if we had to spend days, or weeks, without email, cell phone service, electronic banking, heat in the winter or air conditioning in the summer, clean water, transportation - and light?

Much is being done by utilities and government to try to put in place protections that would ward off cyber attacks. New smart grid technologies are providing powerful tools to monitor and quickly repair the transmission and distribution system, sometimes seamlessly with little or no human intervention.

But a serious question needs to be asked. Perhaps, given the magnitude of the risks we are exposed to, we need to dramatically alter the way we produce and transport the electricity we need to run American society. What would be the equivalent of a bomb shelter for this looming, existential threat?

Perhaps we should view distributed generation and energy storage in a new light. Perhaps we need to marshal our resources to speed development and deployment of these technologies as a matter of national security.

If our homes, factories, office buildings, government facilities, water treatment facilities, hospitals and cell towers all had the ability to generate their own electricity - or call on stored supplies of power - we would be vastly more secure than we are today. It is doable.

This summer I spent an afternoon visiting the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo. The main building on the campus is a net zero energy consumer. It produces what energy it needs - and is designed to use very little. Dan Arvizu, the lab director, told me he discussed the energy profile of that building with the head of Xcel Energy, which is in the business of selling electricity. That executive readily conceded to Arvizu that net zero energy building has to be the way of the future.

Although it may take time to realize, utilities ultimately may have no choice but to evolve their business models.

Despite Al Gore's best efforts, the threat of climate change has not ignited a "moon shot-like" effort to transform our energy grid to meet the needs of a new era.

Perhaps we need to start seeing solar panels and small-scale wind turbines on our roofs, along with New Age skylights that drastically reduce lighting needs, as our bomb shelters of the future.

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