Weak links in the power distribution network could bring nation to its knees

Weak links in the power distribution network could bring nation to its knees
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Energy emergencies have paralyzed large swaths of the United States this year. In February, a record-breaking deep freeze in Texas left 4.5 million people without power, heat, or clean water; the days-long frigid temperatures there killed more than 150. The May hack of the Colonial oil pipeline shut down fuel deliveries from Gulf Coast refineries, a breach that sparked surging gas prices, a fuel-buying panic, and subsequent gas shortages among motorists across the east coast.

These two catastrophes might appear to be isolated incidents, but both signal the fundamental fragility of America's energy infrastructure.

The aging infrastructure of the nation's centralized, hub-and-spoke electrical system is increasingly unable to keep pace with growing demand. The federal government has acknowledged how vulnerable our power grid is to attack.

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Exploiting a few weak links in the power distribution network could bring the nation to its knees. Now, we must confront the question: What can we, the energy industry, and government do about this looming national security crisis?

A fragile system

Electricity powers so much more than the light switches in our home: Communications, internet connectivity, lifesaving healthcare systems, food refrigeration, home heating and cooling, water distribution, finance and banking, defense capabilities — all require electricity to function. Global electricity demand is projected to soar in the coming decades.

A catastrophic power failure would ravage life as we know it, killing “up to 9 of 10 Americans through starvation, disease, and societal collapse,” according to a harrowing 2015 congressional testimony.

More than 7,000 large, centralized power plants (whether fueled by coal, natural gas, nuclear power, solar, or wind) deliver energy across 160,000 miles of high-voltage lines to transformers in substations and then along millions more miles of lower-voltage power lines that crisscross neighborhoods. The nation has three, largely independent electric power networks: east of the Rocky Mountains, west of the Rocky Mountains, and most of Texas.

The frightening reality is that destroying just a handful of substations could cripple the entire power grid. If a few critical links in the nation’s power distribution network are severed, the entire electrical grid is at risk. And essential components — transformers — are huge, complicated, costly, and time consuming to make; there are limited factories in the world that manufacture them, so inventory is limited. It could take several months to supply the United States with a new transformer if one is attacked.

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Emerging threats

Numerous natural and manmade threats could wipe out our electrical system.

The increasingly severe weather wrought by climate change can devastate the power grid, as seen during the massive blackouts in Texas this winter and during hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.

A once-in-a-generation geomagnetic storm caused by a solar flare on the surface of the sun could cause powerful currents to scorch across power lines, scrambling signals and igniting fires.

A high-altitude nuclear detonation by a hostile actor could produce a similar, debilitating aftermath.

While a sophisticated computer hack constitutes another danger, a low-tech kinetic attack, such as a truck slamming into and disabling an electrical substation, could inflict profound damage as well.

This systemic weakness underscores the critical need for decentralized, off-grid power solutions.

Investing in energy resiliency

The unfortunate truth is that we have not sufficiently invested in the system redundancy needed to safeguard the power supply in the event of a calamity.

Lean, efficient systems that produce power finely calibrated to meet demand are more cost effective — but there is no room for error.

The federal government must incentivize electric companies to build in backup resources and reserves to prevent cascading outages. Diversifying and distributing energy generation through local, independent microgrids and other tools is key. Smaller, self-sufficient microgrids, like those found on college campuses or military installations, can continue operating even when larger networks fail, boosting overall energy resiliency. And creative power-sharing agreements between the private sector, state and local governments, and the military can strengthen energy security.

Even smaller, autonomous grids that can be rapidly deployed at scale — quantum grids — can be made using American technology and offer a promising energy solution. These quantum grids can ensure access to renewable power even when everything else shuts down.

Government, utilities, and private industries must think small — local, independent, flexible, and easily deployed power generation, storage, and distribution — to address the enormous energy peril facing us all.

Desmond Wheatley is the president and chief executive officer of Beam Global, a clean technology company providing renewable charging infrastructure solutions for electric vehicles, energy security, and disaster preparedness.