A vulnerable power grid: Let's invest in critical national infrastructure

A vulnerable power grid: Let's invest in critical national infrastructure
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The Atlanta airport blackout this past weekend is yet another example of the vulnerability of our aging electric power grid infrastructure and our critical reliance on the reliable supply of electricity that supports our nation’s productivity and quality of life.

Fortunately, the Atlanta airport event was contained and resulted in no injuries, though it did have a cascade effect on other travel. And it indicates the need for continued research and development on innovative solutions to our evolving energy supply and delivery needs. Couple it with the ongoing outage in Puerto Rico and power disruptions from many other recent storms in the Gulf region, as well as an increasing frequency of weather-related power outages over the past several years, and it highlights a quiet yet growing crisis.

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We take reliable electricity for granted in the United States. Electricity is the lifeblood of our socioeconomic heartbeat. Beyond major events that make the news, what happens when a circuit trips at work or a storm affects power to your home? Virtually all activity stops. Outages are usually brief, manageable annoyances. But like our roads, bridges and dams, our electric power system is an aging part of our national infrastructure that requires long overdue modernization.  

 

The electrical grid faces pressure from both ends of its vast transmission and distribution network. Nearly 400,000 miles of high voltage transmission lines and 16,000 interconnected substations serve this intricate system. Nearly 5 million miles of low voltage distribution circuits and 60,000 stations serve large cities and remote rural areas. Although we frequently hear about the potential for terrorists to hack transmission and distribution networks, the unaddressed decay of these massive systems presents a greater opportunity for disaster.

Much of this infrastructure is well beyond original life expectancy. Legacy systems have been in place for well over 40, 50 and in some instances, 80 years. If George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla — creators of the alternating current, or AC, system — could visit a modern power station, they’d recognize the underlying structure as something they helped create.

The grid was originally designed to move electricity in one direction, from large, centralized resources to factories, commercial facilities, businesses and homes. But the way we use electricity today is based more on power electronics and direct current, or DC, the format that Thomas Edison preferred. Many new resources, such as solar and battery energy storage systems, are inherently DC, resulting in a mismatch between AC delivery infrastructure and DC-based resources and loads.

Further, today’s demands force the grid to perform in a way it was never designed to handle. We need to undertake the equivalent building of the 1940s interstate highway system. Today we must build and upgrade a national power grid infrastructure that is reliable, sustainable and resilient. This would promote economic growth and strengthen national security.

As utilities continue to decommission coal-fired power plants, electricity sources include not only cleaner natural gas plants but also distributed solar and wind farms, located mainly in rural areas. No matter the number of rooftop solar arrays in a city, there simply isn’t enough acreage as in rural America to harness as much clean energy. This new paradigm is enabling options for smaller regional “microgrids,” as a method of building greater resiliency, reliability, and security in our power infrastructure.  

Defined primarily by smaller geographical boundaries, microgrids essentially contain enough energy resources to meet the demand. Microgrids provide energy independence and allow for more rapid restoration of outages as compared to conventional power delivery methods. Microgrids also present opportunities for novel solutions such as the application of DC architecture.

However, microgrids are only one solution and do not provide a one-size-fits-all panacea to broader issues. A national high voltage direct current (HVDC) system, much like interstate highways, would serve this country well and create opportunities for technological leadership and economic growth.

HVDC would maximize investments in large-scale energy developments in remote areas of the country and offshore, as well as create advanced interconnectivity with the existing grid infrastructure and emerging concepts. At the consumer end, DC networks would better match resources to modern use, increasing efficiency and lowering operating costs.

This would be no small investment. Projects would range from shovel-ready construction to advanced high-tech R&D, as well as engineering and technical workforce positions, representing everything from blue-collar to white-collar employment, from general construction to applications of advanced power electronics technologies. It could spur investment across the country in high-paying, sustainable employment. This project also would address our national underinvestment in the grid during the last quarter of the 20th century. 

We are at a critical crossroads with our nation’s power grid. Public/private partnerships between industry, government and consumers can make investments in modernization happen. Our nation’s security, productivity and way of life are at stake.  

Gregory F. Reed is a professor and director of the Center for Energy and the GRID Institute at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering.