Blackouts Illuminate Energy Bill Importance

Tens of thousands of people walking in lockstep across the Brooklyn Bridge. The harrowing sight of a blacked-out Times Square. Unsettling, worrisome images such as these- images that should be imaginary, if not inconceivable to us – are becoming steadily more familiar. This last week was more reminiscent of the 1965 blackout than it was of the 2001 terrorist attacks, but no doubt the bad guys are taking notes. Unless none of our nation’s enemies have CNN or a newspaper subscription, they have surely noted that 35 years later, we are still one equipment failure away from a blackout of staggering scope and economic impact – not to mention the impact on the way we think about ourselves.

Tens of thousands of people walking in lockstep across the Brooklyn Bridge. The harrowing sight of a blacked-out Times Square. Nauseating, worrisome images such as these- images that should be imaginary, if not inconceivable to us – are becoming steadily more familiar. This last week was more reminiscent of the 1965 blackout than it was of the 2001 terrorist attacks, but no doubt the bad guys are taking notes. Unless none of our nation’s enemies have CNN or a newspaper subscription, they have surely noted that 35 years later, we are still one equipment failure away from a blackout of staggering scope and economic impact – not to mention the impact on the way we think about ourselves. The simple fact is that our electric system is creaky, outmoded, and staggering – not just in its physical equipment, but in its underlying paradigm. We still rely on the “hub and spoke” topology dictated by the brute economics of massive centralized power plants. These systems dictated a network design that allows them to be fed constantly by huge lines of rail or pipe, linked to the holes in the ground that provide their fuel. Such a system is an efficient response to the old-economy world of central resources, central generators and central control, but it is inherently, incurably vulnerable. The number of things that have to go right to get the energy out of the ground and into everyone’s homes is staggering, and we have seen what can happen when just one element goes wrong. The simple fact is that for a hub and spoke network to function, nearly every part must work simultaneously. Meanwhile, it is impossible to fortify every segment of the network against every exigency. Look at the huge, fragile high-tension towers dotting the countryside, and imagine the havoc that could be caused should just a few fail – or come under attack. Ponder a national rail strike stalling our coal trains in the station. The Rocky Mountain Institute has catalogued these dangers and many others in their paper “Brittle Power” – the flaws in this arrangement are systemic, not symptomatic, and they require a fundamental shift in the way we think about our power. It’s long past time to move to a decentralized “energy web” where more facilities supply more of their own power, and where the power grid becomes a smarter, communicative pool of energy – rather than a one-way conduit strung with chokepoints. Of course, we cannot make such a transition instantaneously – to do so would be inordinately expensive and frankly reckless. But we must begin the change now, or we will never address this vulnerability. Perhaps the most obvious means of beginning this transition is by outfitting critical emergency response and continuation-of-service facilities with distributed renewable generators. Currently, these facilities operate by relying on mechanical, fossil-fueled emergency backup generators. These devices sit unused in basements across the country, absorbing taxpayer and investor money with an uncertain payback, and are seldom activated by building engineers who must simply hope they will cough to life when an emergency demands – and that the outage will be short enough that they need not be refueled from an electric-powered diesel station or from fuel trucks traveling confused and darkened city streets. These systems are emplaced not only in mission-critical economic niches (e.g. at major stock exchanges or banking houses), but more critically at hospitals and other emergency and governmental services facilities. Having these institutions remain available during a power outage vastly decreases the economic and human impact of such a disaster. Why should we not supplement these capabilities – and place them where they are lacking – with distributed renewable devices? Solar panels, being essentially “electric glass” solid-state electronics, are extremely reliable. What’s more, they are constantly in use, providing ample warning of failures or problems while steadily paying down their initial investment with clean electricity. Thirty years after their initial introduction onto the market, they cost less than 10 percent what they once did, and can be expected to function reliably for decades. Such devices would be extremely helpful, not only in responding to the crisis, but in making it less likely. They reduce strain on the grid by decreasing delivery requirements – especially during the summer electrical peaks, when air conditioning loads, solar system outputs, and system managers’ heart rates peak coincidently. It is these transient peaks – not long-term demand – that play the most havoc with the electrical system, and for which distributed resources are the most responsive. Even at 4 PM EST, the start of the blackout, satellite pictures showed near-ideal solar resources across most of the affected area. More importantly, an initiative such as this would allow us to take the first few steps towards a more stable network topography. There is a lesson to be learned from another infrastructural near-disaster that happened last week – the “Blaster” Internet worm. Though itself relatively ineffectual, it was close kin to last year’s Code Red. Code Red increased Internet usage more than ten times with its continuous flow of bogus information – like a hot summer day for the Internet, but far larger than the largest conceivable spike in power demand. Sure enough, the Internet slowed down appreciably; and some segments even dropped offline intermittently. However, even under the strain of an intentional attack of far greater magnitude than this week’s unintentional strain, the Internet did not experience any failures of equivalent scope. The Internet backbone and the electrical grid are of approximately equivalent complexity. Why should one be so much more resilient than the other? The simple answer is that the Internet is not a monolithic, hub and spoke system. It is a massively INTERconnected NETwork of networks. System maps of the power grid are surprisingly simple – large main branches branching down to mute, dependent, isolated nodes. System maps of the Internet look like a diagram of neurons – millions of linked nodes, capable of some independent functioning and hugely, reticulately interconnected with one another. Many fields of inquiry – ecology, operations research, sociology, computer science, system mathematics and topology – are all developing new realizations that these are the types of systems that tend to develop in nature, for a simple reason – they are adaptable and self-healing in the face of insult or injury. We must take these lessons and apply them to our electrical grid. Small, reliable and newly inexpensive renewable technologies are beginning to open the option of creating smarter, more communicative, more independent, and less vulnerable facilities and generation systems. This is key; as John Podesta and C. Boyden Gray observe in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, a smarter grid is a safer grid. To smaller, more distributed resources will protect us systematically – when small units fail randomly, it is what is called a “graceful degradation”, compared to the catastrophic discontinuity that occurs when a similar random failure removes a large chunk of the generation mix. Such a system is both more predictable – requiring relatively well known inputs (e.g. will the sun will be out two days from now,) as opposed to the unknowable (as whether a Manhattan ConEd transformer will explode in the next ten minutes.) They are also far easier to recover from – it is far easier to adapt to the periodic random failure of a 5 kW solar system powering two houses than it is to the similarly unpredictable safety shutdown of a 1 GW nuclear plant, responsible for a major regional electrical load. We can’t rip out the current system. And we should undoubtedly reinforce it as a stopgap measure. But we would be beyond foolish to rely on just doing that. In the long term, the FERC should consider a fundamental repurposing of the grid. In the near term, we have an Energy Bill about to enter conference, with some critical opportunities. The House energy bill contains an amendment authored by Representative Oberstar (DFL-MN) that would provide $1 billion over 5 years to place photovoltaic systems on government buildings. Representative Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) pushed through a complementary measure that would allow the Department of Energy to provide technical assistance and a share of the cost for renewable energy installations on state and municipal facilities (e.g. state trooper barracks, 911 dispatch centers, etc.) for $120 million in total costs. Contrast those figures with some others, like the more than $20 billion requested by the NERC to prop up the current transmission system; with more than half a billion dollars in lost tax revenue alone to just New York City during a one-day blackout; and with the $50 billion that Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham candidly points out will be needed from ratepayers to modernize the grid. These measures, already present in the House version of the Energy Bill, are unquestionably necessary to provide for a safe and sane response to future grid outages. However, in the long run, we must do far more – the Federal government must simplify the current Byzantine system of regulations that keeps small, clean generators from interconnecting with the grid or net metering their production. (An amendment to the Senate energy bill, as proposed by Senator Maria Cantwell [D-WA] would have done just this, and more than 400 corporations from almost every state expressed their enthusiastic support for such a measure.) Tax credits are present in both bills – a proposed 15 percent credit for residential systems, currently capped at $2000, should have a $4000 max. The 10 percent tax credit for commercial installations should come up to 20 percent. Beyond these threshold issues, it is time to get serious. It is long past time for the Federal government to institute a national buydown program for small clean energy systems – even a minor incentive – say $3/ Watt installed, descending by 4-5 percent per year – would kickstart the renewable energy economy, which is now poised at the “tipping point” of becoming a significant part of our energy supply. In recent years, our power grid has become less reliable, more expensive to operate, and more limited in capacity. Meanwhile, renewable resources have become less expensive, more reliable, and taken great leaps in available MW. While we invest money in propping up the grid for the short term, we should remember that it’s beyond time, in the words of Sun Tzu, to “reinforce success and starve failure.”
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