Eastern power outage unfortunate but entirely predictable

Aug. 14 event offers wake-up call for US energy policymakers

provided by Rocky Mountain Institute


fficials with Rocky Mountain Institute, one of the world's leading energy think tanks, has called on US energy policymakers to note events in the Eastern United States and fundamentally change how the United States designs its electricity system to make it more reliable and more resilient.

    Calling the massive August 14 power outages in the Northeastern United States “a wake-up call to decision makers,” officials at the twenty-year-old Institute said Americans should look to distributed, diverse, and resilient clean technologies to power their industries, homes, and communities. America's existing system, based on a hundred years' worth of heavily centralized generation and distribution policies, can trigger a cascading series of errors that leaves us vulnerable and should be corrected.

    “This is the fourth catastrophic failure of the central power grid within the past decade,” said Kyle Datta, Managing Director of RMI's consulting practice, “and yet, decision makers are not learning the right lessons from these crises.”

    In 1996, western states lost power because a squirrel got burned on one of the transformers at a crucial time. In 1998, there were two power failures: ice storms took out power from eastern Canada and the United States, and the city of Auckland, New Zealand lost power for over two months due to a transmission line failure. Today, the power loss appears to be from a strike of lightning.

    RMI has warned of the weakness of the grid for years, notably via the Institute's founders' 1982 book Brittle Power: Energy Strategy for National Security (www.rmi .org/sitepages/art7095.php), which describes the vulnerability of the North American electric grid to attack, accident, and natural disaster.

    In 1982, in the wake of the July 1977 New York City blackout, RMI cofounder Amory Lovins, described the electrical grid as a disaster waiting to happen.

    “The United States has for decades been undermining the foundations of its own strength,” he wrote. “It has gradually built up an energy system prone to sudden massive failures with catastrophic consequences.”

    According to latest reports, the current power failure that occurred at 4:15 EDT appears to have been caused by a lightning strike that shut down a power plant in Niagara, New York, which in turn impacted the high voltage transmission lines connecting the United States and Canada.

    RMI's Datta observes that the reason the New York system power failure, cascaded across to New England, Canada and the Midwest, was that all the systems were heavily loaded with high electrical demand and near capacity, so that when a problem starts in part of the interconnected system, it can spread quickly to the remainder of the system through a cascading series of failures.

    Mr. Datta said that the centralized architecture of the large interconnected power systems is one of the United States' biggest vulnerabilities. Today's power system consists of relatively few and large units of generation and transmission, interconnected rather sparsely, with heavy dependence on a few critical nodes (many of which are nearing overload). These interconnected units are knitted into a synchronous system in a way that is difficult for the system to operate if it becomes isolated. The system provides relatively little storage to buffer the successive stages of generation and distribution, and locates generation units in clusters, remote from the loads they serve.

    All these attributes contradict the fundamental requirements of resilient design. Further, the failure to invest in energy conservation and demand response have lead to a situation in which power demand rises to the point where there is little surplus capacity left in the system, placing our electricity system in a precarious position. Even a weather-induced surge of electricity or a failure of a major power plant or transmission line can cascade through the system and cause massive technical, social, public health, and national security problems as they did Aug. 14. Our electrical system, as predicted more than thirty years ago, is and remains extremely brittle.

Learning the right lessons

    Datta observes the traditional response is to call for more and larger power plants, and extensive expansion of the transmission system. While such solutions will provide temporary relief, they do not address the root cause of the problem.

    The solution, he said, is distributed generation architecture: placing smaller, modular, diverse, and redundant electrical devices spread across the grid close to the load they serve. Energy sources such as fuel cells, combined heat and power, solar panels and microturbines can provide power at lower cost and greater reliability than the centralized power grid. The distributed energy sources can be organized into modules, such as power parks, that can isolate themselves from the system when necessary.

    RMI's 2002 publication, Small Is Profitable www.smallisprofitable.org) finds that the benefits of distributed resources make them more economic than centralized power plants relying on a distributed architecture that makes the system far more resilient than today.

    “The interesting question is not understanding why the centralized system failed once again,” said Datta, “but to understand which elements of the system are able to maintain electricity supply in the face of overall system failure. Our prediction is that the distributed generation components of the system continued to provide reliable power.”

    Datta likened our current grid to a centralized mainframe with limited access points. The worldwide web, on the other hand, distributes computing power, and by its dispersed nature means information is at much less risk, he said. “The web is a very good model of what we should be doing with electricity. The grid should exist, but it should complement electricity storing and generating devices on our office buildings, our homes, roofs, in our basements, and ultimately in our fuel cell driven automobiles. Putting all our eggs in one basket is a predictable catastrophe waiting to happen.”

    For more information please visit www .rmi.org; call Rocky Mountain Institute at 970-927-3851