January 28, 2013

Safeguarding Our Electrical Grid

Popular Science (28 January 2013) has an interesting article on "How To Save The Electrical Grid."

Power use has skyrocketed with home appliances, TVs, and computers, causing a significant increase in demand and "pushing electricity through lines that were never intended to handle such high loads."

Our electrical infrastructure is aging with transformers "now more than 40 years old on average and 70% of transmission lines are at least 25 years old" while at the same time over the last three decades average U.S. household power consumption has tripled!

The result is that the U.S. experiences over 100 mass outages a year to our electrical systems from storms, tornados, wildfires and other disasters.

According to the Congressional Research Service, "cost estimates from storm-related outages to the U.S. economy at between $20 billion and $55 billion annually."

For example, in Hurricane Sandy 8 millions homes in 21 states lost power, and in Hurricane Irene, a year earlier, 5.5 million homes lost electricity. 

The solution is to modernize our electrical grid:

- Replace a linear electrical design with a loop design, so a failure can be rerouted. (Isn't this basic network architecture where a line network is doomed by a single point of failure, while a ring or mesh topology can handle interruptions at any given point?)

- Install "fault-current limiters" as shock absorbers so when there is a surge in the grid, we can "absorb excess current and send a regulated amount down the line" rather than causing circuit breakers to open and stop the flow of electrical power altogether. 

- Create backup power generation for critical infrastructure such as hospitals, fire stations, police, and so on, so that critical services are not interrupted by problems on the larger grid. This can be expanded to installing solar and other renewable energy resources on homes, buildings, etc. 

- Replace outdated electrical grid components and install a smart grid and smart meters to "digitally monitor and communicate home power" and automatically adjust power consumption at the location and device level. Smart technology can help manage the load on the grid and shift non-essential use to off-hour use. The estimated cost for modernizing the U.S. grid is $673 billion--but the cost of a single major outages can run into the ten of billions alone. What will it take for this investment to become a national priority? 

I would add an additional solution for safeguarding our electrical grid by beefing up all elements of cyber security from intrusion detection and prevention to grid protection, response, and recovery capabilities. Our electrical system is a tempting target for cyber criminal, terrorists or hostile nation states that would seek to deprive us of our ability to power our economy, defense, and political establishments. 

While energy independence has become feasible by 2020, we need to make sure that we not only have enough energy resources available, but also the means for reliable and secure energy generation and distribution to every American family and business. ;-)

(Source Photo: Andy Blumenthal)


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