The US Grid: Vulnerable in the Age of Terror and Superstorms

November 19, 2012

A common refrain from the climate denial and delay community is that acknowledging climate change would require astronomical, and they say, unnecessary investments in changing energy infrastructure.  The real story? Making those investments is not an option, unless we think we can compete in a 21st century world with a 19th century grid. The electrical grid we have would be instantly recognizable to Thomas Edison, who flipped the switch on the first working model in lower manhattan in 1882.

You don’t need a superstorm to bring down the grid. In the 2003 blackout, the east coast went famously dark due to the apocryphal tree branch in Ohio. The lesson is not lost on those who would wish to make it happen again.

News Latitude:

Nearly three weeks after Hurricane Sandy hit the coast, thousands of people still don’t have power. Many are living in shelters because their homes lack heat, hot water and electricity, while thousands more have completely lost their homes. The storm took over 100 lives.

But as utility workers repair an aging American grid — and as climate change promises to bring stronger storms more frequently — Latitude News wonders what the U.S. can learn from the Netherlands’ modern, disaster-resistant power grid.

I asked Wessel Bakker what would happen to power supplies if a storm like Sandy hit the Dutch coast, a storm that comes ashore with 30-foot waves and 80-mile-per-hour winds.

He paused for a long moment, then said: “In the worst case scenario, I think nothing will happen.”

When Hurricane Sandy barreled through New Jersey and New York, strong winds ravaged local distribution grids — tree limbs became projectiles, power lines snapped and utility poles were uprooted.

It is physically impossible for this kind of damage to happen to the Netherlands’ distribution grid. The wind may blow, but the power lines are safe underground.

Much of the U.S. grid is designed in star patterns, meaning power lines fan out in straight lines toward homes and communities. That means if a power line connecting a community to the bulk grid goes down, the power won’t come back on until that line is repaired.

But in the Netherlands, the grid is laid out in a circular formation. If you lose power from one direction, you can quickly receive it from the other direction. And, increasingly, the Dutch grid is interconnected with neighboring Germany, Norway, Belgium and the UK. Inter-connectivity improves reliability.

All of these factors — a massive infrastructure designed to resist floods, an extensive network of underground power lines, and a highly interconnected grid — make the Dutch grid far more reliable than the American grid.

“In 2011,” said Bakker, “the average annual outage time for a [Dutch] user was 23 minutes.” Bakker said in 2008, the best U.S. states had an average outage time of 90 minutes. “The worst had about 230 minutes.”

I asked Bakker when was the last time the Netherlands experienced a big power outage. Again, he paused for a long moment: “It depends what you call ‘big.’ There was a large one in the western region about 15 years ago. That outage lasted about two hours.” are some sobering statistics. A recent report for Congress (entitled “Weather-Related Power Outages and Electric System Resiliency”) estimated that each year storms cost the U.S. $20 to $55 billion in damage and lost economic productivity. However, New York Governor Andrew Cuomoestimated that Hurricane Sandy, one single storm, caused $50 billion in damage, most of it in New York State. That means in 2012, we hit our annual quota in one day. The report, written two months before Sandy hit the coast, also noted: “the trend of outages from weather-related events is increasing.”

Wessel Bakker doesn’t envy the American situation.

But can the U.S. really do what the Netherlands has done — pump billions, if not trillions, into smart-grid technologies and disaster-resistant infrastructure?

We might not have a choice, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers(ASCE). In a 2011 report called “Failure to Act: The Economic Impact of Current Investment Trends in Electricity Infrastructure,” ASCE called the American grid a “patchwork system” that could break down without a $673-billion investment by 2020. At current rates of investment, the ASCE report says the economy will grow more slowly and be more susceptible to fits and starts induced by nasty weather.

One sector that has been pro-active in learning the lessons of grid failure, the US military.


Microgrids also have the military’s attention as a way for the Department of Defense to make core base operations self-sufficient with both security and efficiency a goal. In some demonstrations it is tying batteries, energy efficiency and renewables all together in a smart microgrid scenario.

• Certainly there are a number of civilian or community-based microgrids under way too – but perhaps not with the urgency that is behind the military’s microgrid maneuvers. For instance, in recent weeks alone:

• Fort Bliss in Texas announced it intends to be the first large-scale, net zero military installation and issued an RFI to seek industry assistance in the effort.

 • ZBB Energy Corp. won a Navy contract to provide a 1000kWH energy storage systemfor use in a microgrid application at the San Nicolas Island Naval Facility off the California coast.

 • The U.S. Army launched a three-month microgrid technologies project in Afghanistan with the aim of significantly lower fossil fuel consumption on the battlefield and identifying the microgrid technologies with the highest potential in an operational environment.

• Sandia National Laboratory has developed an Energy Surety Microgrid for initial use by the military with hopes of later transferring it to the civilian world.

• Boeing and Siemens announced a strategic alliance to develop microgrid and other energy-saving technologies for the Defense Department.

On that last point, Boeing and Siemens are just two of the many companies jockeying for a role as the Pentagon moves to reduce energy consumption by a third at military bases by 2020 and to have renewable energy sources account for 25% of energy used by 2025.

In stalling the necessary transition to a modern, networked, secure, islandable, smart power grid, the climate denial community degrades US security, comfort and competitiveness in a global economy.

31 Responses to “The US Grid: Vulnerable in the Age of Terror and Superstorms”

  1. rayduray Says:

    Some readers will immediately discount this analysis of the failure of the electric utility industry in NY/NJ to adequately prepare for and recover from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. Others of us will once again question the appropriateness of the capitalist model as being capable of running anything more complex than a greeting card company with a proper degree of concern for safety and reliability.

    Select quote:

    “The devastation and loss of life wrought by hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, as well as many other storms, are not merely natural disasters, they are social catastrophes, caused by the the capitalist system and the criminal misallocation of society’s resources by a tiny elite bent on increasing its own wealth above everything else.”

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