How to End Blackouts Forever

There is a way to make our grid more resilient and blackouts a thing of the past. Here's how:

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Mario Tama / Getty Images

Cars are blurred as they pass by a darkened Flatiron Building in a section of Manhattan still in a blackout following Hurricane Sandy on October 30, 2012 in New York City

Come hell or high water — and Sandy brought both to many Americans— most of us can’t get the electricity we need. More than two weeks after the storm’s departure, 25,000 homes were still without power. We live high in the Rockies and were unaffected, but a couple of Februaries ago snowstorms knocked out our neighbors’ electricity on five different days. But ours stayed on — by design. Our house’s efficient lights and appliances save most of the electricity. This shrinks the solar power system that runs our meter backwards and sells back its surplus to the grid. But unlike most solar-powered buildings, ours is wired to work with or without the grid.

That’s where the Pentagon is headed with its own power supplies. Warfighters need their stuff to work. They’ve concluded that the vulnerability of the commercial power grid is far too great to ensure mission continuity. So they’re switching to efficient use, distributed and often renewable energy sources on or near their bases, and reorganizing their wiring into “microgrids.” These neighborhood power systems normally interconnect with the larger grid around them, but can stand alone as needed, disconnecting fractally and reconnecting seamlessly.

(MORE: Will We Be Seeing More Superstorms?)

The rest of us, whom our military defends, need our stuff to work too, so we should follow their example. Twenty-odd microgrid experiments around the world show that this concept works. By my accounting, a resilient, microgrid-based, and 80%-renewable electricity system would cost about the same as business-as-usual, greatly strengthening national and family security as a free bonus.

Such resilient grid design would protect us all from cascading and potentially economy-shattering blackouts that could make Sandy look trivial. Earthquakes, superstorms, floods, and wildfires are the least of our worries. Solar storms make massive grid failures inevitable — the only question is when, and it’s about time for another big one. A simple acts of terrorism could black out a city for months. A concerted cyberattack launched anonymously from anywhere on earth could physically destroy key grid assets across much or all of the country, returning America instantly to the seventh century, with dim prospects for recovery.

(MORE: What You Need To Know About Blackouts)

The solution is in our hands, and it’s proven. When wildfire cut a major power line, the University of California at San Diego’s microgrid switched from importing to exporting power from its onsite sources in less than a half-hour. Denmark is reorganizing its grid in “cellular” fashion, stress-testing annually by cutting off the grid to make sure each “cell” still meets vital loads. Prof. Rikiya Abe at Tokyo University has even invented a “digital grid” whose “routers” can exchange power between microgrids without needing to run in lockstep like today’s analog grid.

Perhaps the most impressive example of electrical resilience comes from Cuba, and we can learn from it even if we wouldn’t want to live there. Cuba’s Soviet-era grid was highly centralized and depended on 11 big but geriatric power plants, so in 2005, Cuba suffered 224 serious blackout days. But this fell in 2006 to three and in 2007 to zero. How? By adopting efficient appliances, inverted rate structures, public education, distributed generators, and optionally independent microgrids. Then in 2008, two hurricanes in two weeks shredded Cuba’s eastern grid, but essential services were maintained.

A U.S. industry consensus standard called IEEE-1547 specifies how to wire renewable and other distributed generators to keep utility workers safe while ensuring resilient, uninterruptible power supplies for customers. Yet many states or utilities still don’t allow this. Modern solar power electronics often offer IEEE-1547-compliant resilient operation, but obsolete rules don’t allow this smart feature to be activated. State utility regulators should fix this now.

The sooner resilient grid architecture becomes standard practice, the better we can keep the lights on, the economy humming, and blackouts just a bad old memory.

MORE: The Power Grid: From Rickety to Resilient

3 comments
LumenCache
LumenCache

LumenCache lights use this concept.  Utility power from the grid charges a battery, then the battery powers all the lights.  www.lumencache.com

ertdfg
ertdfg

"a resilient, microgrid-based, and 80%-renewable electricity system would cost about the same as business-as-usual"

Renewable energy costs about 8 TIMES  as much to produce electricity ... so these microgrids are so cheap they'll pay us 7 times our current lifetime electric bills to use them?

Oh, they aren't?  So in your mind an electric bill eight times as large as the $100/month I pay now is "about the same"? Yeah, I'm not so rich I can shrug at a $700/month bill increase... it must be nice to be a reporter for Time. How much do you guys actually get paid?

FeRD
FeRD

@ertdfg This is an opinion piece, and as stated right in the attribution, "Lovins is the co-founder and chief scientist at Rocky Mountain Institute. The views expressed are solely his own." He's not a reporter for Time, or a reporter at all, he's an environmental scientist and policy wonk who's been working on this stuff for most of his 65 years. (There's a Wikipedia article on him, if you're interested in knowing more about his qualifications. That's how I found out who he is.)

Since you missed that minor detail, you'll forgive if I take your other arguments with a grain of salt. Especially the one about renewable energy costing 8x as much as traditional energy production. That just doesn't pass the smell test.

Take solar for example. Yes, it costs money to install solar panels and capture technology; there's absolutely a signifcant upfront cost to its adoption. But once that infrastructure is in place, the sun's rays are — last I checked — free-of-charge, and the energy that comes from them is similarly free.

I'm not a renewable-energy expert (like Lovins), nor am I a cheerleader for traditional, planet-raping energy utilities (as you seem to be). I'm just a reader. But Lovins claims in this piece that, "Our house’s efficient lights and appliances save most of the electricity. This shrinks the solar power system that runs our meter backwards and sells back its surplus to the grid", so I can assume that this is the model he's basing his math on.

Your skepticism is warranted, and there are undoubtedly questions or concerns about his plan's accuracy or its scalability. But a blanket assertion that abandoning wasteful, non-renewable energy sources "costs about 8 TIMES as much to produce electricity" is even harder to swallow, and makesyour own motivations seem suspect.