US energy systems have disaster written all over them

The U.S. power industry, with the support of the government, is engaged in a massive effort to upgrade the nation’s power grid from a 19th-century infrastructure to a smart system that takes advantage of and is capable of supporting 21st-century technology.

It is a big job, but technologically it is fairly straightforward. We create a standards-based, interoperable network that is capable of two-way transmission of power and data. The challenges are twofold: How do we take advantage of this smart grid infrastructure to reduce our dependence on traditional fossil fuel, and how do we secure it?

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The two issues are closely related. By enabling the use of nontraditional energy sources, such as solar and wind generation, we not only can reduce our dependence on foreign oil but also create a more robust, resilient system that is less vulnerable to attacks.

Former CIA Director James Woolsey made this point recently at a discussion hosted by the Northern Virginia Technology Council. His view of the threats to our electric grid is a little extreme, but much of his proposed solution makes sense.

“We have a condition with our infrastructure in the U.S. that is a disaster waiting to happen,” Woolsey said. Taking down the power grid would throw the country back to the 1870s, he said, and we have enemies who are eager to do just that. “It is worse than a jungle out there. It is very, very dangerous.”

Dangerous? Yes. But it would not be that easy to take us back to the 1870s and strand us there. In the first place, today’s grid system already is resilient. It is owned and operated by about 3,500 organizations, interconnected but also independent. Massive power outages demonstrate some of the weaknesses of the system, but also its strengths. Outages are isolated, and power is fairly quickly restored when they do occur. Studies have shown that it would be difficult if not impossible to bring down a significant portion of our power grid at the same time, and interconnections could allow us to work around the intentional destruction of equipment to restore power.

Secondly, any enemy who attacked our power grid, with bombs or with bits and bytes, would be risking retaliation from our military. No nation that is not willing to face us militarily is likely to launch a cyberattack against our power grid.

Still, we would be foolish not to defend our systems to the best of our ability. As part of this defense, Woolsey advocates an even more decentralized power system, replacing or augmenting the current system of large generating facilities with more distributed generation. Local generators operating on a small scale could feed enough power into the system from enough locations that large-scale disruption would be even more difficult.

Nobody wants a nuclear reactor or a coal-fired power plant in his back yard, but solar, wind or other generating sources could provide local sources of energy that also could be consumed regionally or even nationally as needed.

This is just what the smart grid could enable, but two things need to be done to make it practical. Nontraditional power sources need to become more efficient than they are today, and energy storage technology needs to become much more efficient to enable the storage and distribution of significant amounts of energy from inconsistent sources such as the sun and wind.

Advances in these technologies could go a long way toward creating a more economical, efficient, secure and resilient power system for our nation.


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