If Thomas Edison resurrected tomorrow and decided to inspect the American power grid, he would find everything up to his standards. In the 21st century, that’s a problem. The power grid is a climate, economic, and security issue. That means it’s also a climate, economic, and security opportunity. Policymakers have an obligation to develop plans for a smarter grid that can meet the demands of a clean energy economy in the modern era. Investment in a grid that can integrate renewable energy sources and withstand weather-related outages protects the nation’s domestic security interests, pays for itself, and reduces US emissions.
The United States power grid is made up of three large interconnections: the Eastern, the Western, and, true to its lone star moniker, Texas. There are over 50,000 substations scattered across the three grid interconnections, but as the former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Jon Wellinghoff observed, “If you bring down a limited number of substations in each of those interconnects, you cannot bring the interconnect back up again.”
It’s not all that tough to bring down a substation, either. All it takes is a single sniper bullet through a transformer to render it inoperative until replacement, a fact that was demonstrated in 2013 when unknown attackers knocked out 17 transformers in California. Wellinghoff called the act “the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred” in the United States. A cyberattack would be even more devastating, no bullets required.
Such an attack is not mere conjecture. In 2015, groups with suspected ties to the Russian government successfully undermined the Ukrainian power grid following Russia’s belligerent annexation of the Crimean peninsula a year before. Experts believe that foreign state actors are the most likely perpetrators of such an attack due to the sophistication required. Iran, China, and Russia are just a few potential cyber adversaries, and the results of a cyberattack would be costly in terms of dollars, productivity, and human welfare.
Foreign adversaries have already begun targeting the US grid, according to the Department of Energy. Electric utilities reported 362 attacks that caused outages or disruptions between 2011 and 2014. A CIA official revealed that one cyberattack in 2008 “caused a power outage affecting multiple cities.”
A study published by the CNA Military Advisory Board, an advisory group composed of retired generals and admirals, implores policymakers to revitalize the grid through short-term measures such as expanding access to clean energy power sources and improving the nation’s energy storage capacities. The Board also recommends more long-term measures to “end our reliance on traditional, environmentally damaging high-carbon fuels” and “reduce our reliance on large, vulnerable regional power plants and their highly exposed distribution infrastructure.” Moreover, they warn that an attack need not come only from foreign adversaries, but from domestic enemies as well.
A well-coordinated attack could leave millions of Americans without power. In an extreme case, an attack could wreak havoc on US sanitation services and induce widespread food and water insecurity. Policymakers should ensure that national security systems, especially military systems, do not depend upon a poorly protected grid. The CNA Military Advisory Board proposed that military bases in particular should operate on independently-operated “micro-grids” that are disconnected, and therefore protected, from the larger US grid.
Either the grid must be fortified against such attacks, or important national security systems should not rely on the grid. One policy solution includes retaining manual fail-safes in case of attack, instead of fully automating the grid. While automation will go a long way in making the grid more efficient, a fully automatic grid might be harder to protect in case of emergency.
Attacks are not the only threats facing the grid. An arguably more imminent threat is climate change; high winds, storm surges, wildfires, and flooding are all occurring with greater frequency and severity. This August, Hurricane Laura damaged 292 substations and took out 1,108 miles of transmission lines. The CEO of Entergy Louisiana said, “This is not a restoration [of the transmission system in southwest Louisiana]. It’s almost a complete rebuild.”
Extreme weather events – heat waves, fires, ice storms, and hurricanes like Laura – cost the US economy tens of billions of dollars each year. In 2012, Superstorm Sandy alone cost the US economy between $27 and $52 billion. Extreme weather also negatively impacts public health and leaves ordinary Americans without power for days or even weeks at a time. A more resilient, modern grid will reduce the damages that these weather events create.
President-elect Joe Biden wants to make the US carbon neutral by 2050. This is impossible without fundamental changes to how the American grid operates. Because the grid has three interconnections, surplus energy in one part of the country cannot easily be offloaded to another. As Louisiana State University environmental scientist Brian Snyder said, “It turns out, that’s really important for creating a grid with a lot of renewable energy, because there’s all that difference in climate across the entire United States. If it’s a sunny day in California and you can produce a lot of solar, but it’s not windy in the Midwest – well, right now that power can’t really move from one side of the country to the other.”
The central US region between the Mississippi River and Rockies is projected to make up 30 percent of American energy demand in 2050, but this same region is able to provide nearly 90 percent of wind power. The problem isn’t a lack of supply, but an outdated grid that is unable to carry that supply to high-demand regions.
Joe Biden’s climate team is well-aware of this problem. During his tenure in the Obama administration, the president-elect detailed a plan to fund a smarter electrical grid as a part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2008. During the 2020 campaign, President-elect Biden released a $2 trillion spending plan that would enable the grid to rely on clean energy alone by 2035. The plan is ambitious and perhaps infeasible, but this type of bold action is exactly what the climate crisis warrants. 70 percent of grid infrastructure is over 25 years old. Think about the technological changes that American society has undergone in the last 25 years. If some of those innovations can be applied to the grid, Americans and the global climate will be better off.
According to an Energy Department report, these innovations include “advanced sensors known as Phasor Measurement Units (PMUs) that allow operators to assess grid stability, advanced digital meters that give consumers better information and automatically report outages, relays that sense and recover from faults in the substation automatically, automated feeder switches that reroute power around problems, and batteries that store excess energy and make it available later to the grid to meet customer demand.” Along with enhancing security and efficiency, smart-grid technologies will allow the grid to automatically adapt to consumer demand and utility supply.
The economic impact should not be overlooked. Yes, the $2 trillion price tag on President-elect Biden’s plan seems expensive. But the costs of climate change dwarf that number. The Fourth National Climate Assessment, published in 2018, found that if emissions continue at historic rates, hundreds of billions would be lost per year. Another study funded by the US Department of Energy found that for every $1 invested, utilities customers would get $2.50 in benefits. Moreover, massive investment in infrastructure requires a lot of manpower. A broad modernization of the grid and support of clean energy will usher in hundreds of thousands of new American jobs.
A modern grid is in the interest of all Americans. The only problem is that a modern grid would reduce American’s reliance on coal, which from the perspective of every group except the coal industry, is a good thing. But the coal lobby is strong. Every three years, the Department of Energy is mandated to release a report on grid congestion. President Donald Trump released one update during his tenure – two years late. The president should have instructed his administration to complete the report on time because policymakers need to know the current state of the grid if they are to make it better for the future.
Much of today’s grid was constructed over a period of more than 100 years. In terms of climate risk and national security risk, the obsolescence of essential energy infrastructure is costly and risky. It is up to the government to invest in the grid. A modern grid will be safer, cleaner, more secure, more resilient, and more reliable. Americans deserve that.
Photo: Image via Flickr (Oran Viriyincy)