What You Need To Know About Blackouts

Our electricity system is likely to fail, but here's how we can make it more resilient

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Electricity is the lifeblood of modern society. It runs practically everything — except when it doesn’t. The regional blackouts that roll across America and other industrial nations about once a decade are getting costlier. Each time, operators fix the specific causes. But a deeper fix is needed than building more and bigger power plants and lines — a habit as outdated as treating fever with bloodletting.

The underlying cause of cascading blackouts, like the one the Northeast experienced in August 2003, is an inherently brittle, overcentralized grid. But what many people don’t realize is that this isn’t just a problem of aging infrastructure. The grid is also flawed because its design is vulnerable to solar storms, cyberattacks and terrorists. These three threats could not just interrupt power but physically destroy specialized equipment that would take years to rebuild.

Solar superstorms are occasional but inevitable eruptions, created by turbulence within the sun, that blast the Earth with powerful charged particles. A major solar storm like the one that occurred in 1921 (one-fourth as big as the one in 1859) could black out more than 130 million Americans, cost $1-2 trillion in the first year alone, and take four to 10 years to recover from.

(MORE: A Solar Storm Hits the Earth)

As to cyberattacks, the National Electric Reliability Council disclosed in 2009 that over half of responding utilities were getting some 150 “serious” cyberattacks per week, and attacks abroad had caused “multiple city power outages.” That same year, the Director of National Intelligence told the Senate that cyberattacks were growing “more sophisticated, targeted and serious,” and warned they’d “had overwhelming success against well-defended government networks.”

These dangerous fragilities can be cost-effectively abated, as some utilities have started doing. But cascading blackouts, whatever their cause, can also be prevented altogether, while making the electricity system no costlier but far cleaner, safer, and richer in customer choice, innovation, and entrepreneurship. This takes three coordinated shifts: efficient and timely use of electricity; diverse, dispersed, renewable generators; and resilient grids.

Most of America’s electricity is now wasted. Rocky Mountain Institute’s Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for a New Energy Era shows how a robustly growing economy can need less electricity — despite electrified autos, whose flexibility and storage also help the grid integrate solar and windpower. Those sources are easier to manage than coal or nuclear energy because their variations are smaller and less abrupt and can be forecasted.

Needing less electricity will ease and speed a big shift in how we make it. By 2050, today’s giant coal, natural gas, and nuclear plants will be mostly retired. At comparable cost but far less risk, we can replace them with generators the right size for the job, especially renewables. Half the world’s added capacity in the past three years was renewable, because it’s now competitive and swiftly getting even cheaper.

(MORE: Green Jobs vs. Brown Jobs)

Already Denmark, with 36% of its electricity coming from renewables, has Europe’s most reliable power at about the lowest pretax prices. Portugal’s power rose from 17 to 45% renewable in 2005–10 (while the U.S. went from nine to 10%). Four German states last year were 43 to 52% windpowered — part of a strategy that’s helped Germany achieve fuller employment today than before 2008. America already has more solar-and-wind installation jobs than coal jobs.

With a smart portfolio of renewable generators, we can cost-effectively redesign a secure grid. Distributed generators are closer to customers and can make a grid more resilient, splitting it into myriad microgrids that normally interconnect but can stand alone at need and still serve key loads. My house high in the Colorado Rockies does this (I can’t even tell when the grid fails.) So do 20 microgrid experiments around the world. So does Denmark’s pilot “cellular” grid. So does Cuba’s grid, which cut serious blackout days from 224 in 2005 to zero in 2007, then in 2008 sustained vital services through two grid-shredding hurricanes in two weeks.

As a Defense Science Board task force on which I served recommended in a 2008 report titled More Fight—Less Fuel, the Pentagon favors such resilient power systems, designed like the Internet to work around failures. So should we all.

Business can make it so. Military innovation can speed it. And American enterprise and innovation can win the global clean energy race while making potentially nation-shattering blackouts impossible. Let’s roll.