Sandy Reminds About Frailty of Electric Grid

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With eight million customers or so without electrical power today on the United States’ East Coast, it’s worth recalling Lisa Margonelli’s prescient look at the nation’s aging power grid from July:

Two scary things stand out about America’s failure to shore up its grid over the last 15 years. The first is that the grid’s frailties are getting worse as our weather is getting weirder. The second is that the U.S.’s inability to sort out the right mix of public and private investment and get on with the process of building the grid we need reflects that we no longer quite believe in the common good. It’s not just a power failure, it’s also an optimism failure.

Hurricane Sandy has put lots of assumptions about the grid to the test, ranging from the wisdom of having so many power lines above ground to the need for nuclear generators to go dark during big blows.

Of course Sandy is (we hope) an outlier, and even a robust grid would be hard-pressed to stay whole during a “once-in-a-long-time" storm. But in the next few days, as parts of major American cities remain in the dark, it’s worth pondering how not just to patch up the grid and wait for the next disaster, but make it more reliable.

As electrical engineer Massoud Amin wrote in IEEE Spectrum, in noting that “utilities have harvested more than they have planted” in caring for the grid, outages have steadily increased since 1995—and that’s independent of things like fires or major storms). And the cost, he notes, while massive, might not be the burden you might think:

Investing in the grid would pay for itself, to a great extent. You'd save stupendous outage costs—about $49 billion per year (and get 12 to 18 percent annual reductions in emissions). Improvement in efficiency would cut energy usage, saving an additional $20.4 billion annually.

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