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Girding the Power Grid

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
April 24, 2007

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Residents of Baghdad have become accustomed to power outages (NPR), some lasting up to twenty hours. Such intermittent access to electricity can be expected in a war zone, but in the United States? Already half a million Americans are without power for at least two hours each day, and experts warn that unless the United States makes changes to its electrical grid, more and more Americans could be left in the dark.

U.S. energy demand and generation capacity have grown at a faster rate than the ability to transmit that power. According to a recent report from the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC), this trend will likely continue for the next decade (PDF). As this Backgrounder explains, higher prices and more frequent blackouts can be expected as a result.

Blackouts in the years ahead will probably not achieve the scale of the 2003 outage (PDF) that left some 50 million people in the northeastern United States and Canada without power. In response to that blackout, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and gave NERC the authority to make and enforce rules for safe operation of the grid. NERC President and CEO Richard P. Sergel tells CFR.org the 2003 blackout will not be replicated, but preventing such an event may mean creating managed blackouts to avoid overtaxing the system.

Not only is the U.S. power grid overloaded, it is also outdated. When the American Society of Civil Engineers last issued its report card for U.S. infrastructure, it gave the grid a D. Last July one hundred thousand residents of Queens, New York were without power for nine sweltering days (PDF) as the local utility provider struggled to repair seven failed transformers whose average age was thirty-one years.

The U.S. power grid is vulnerable to external factors as well. Large storms can produce lasting outages, as can well-planned acts of sabotage. CFR homeland security expert Stephen E. Flynn worries that terrorists are honing such skills in Iraq and could soon begin applying them in the United States. In his book, The Edge of Disaster, Flynn argues the United States must construct a more resilient infrastructure.

Hardening the power grid against terrorists or the elements is impractical, but improved technologies could boost its ability to overcome such hazards. “Smart grids” (CBC) employ meters that can advise customers (or even their appliances) when high demand is placing additional stress on the grid, which can help reduce peak demand levels. Italy has already converted to a smart grid, and much of Europe is seeking to follow suit. The United States has been slower to catch on, though some parts of California plan to upgrade (San Diego Union-Tribune).

Distributed generation—producing electricity at or close to the source of consumption—can also help relieve pressure on an energy grid by reducing the distance electricity must travel to get to the end user. Solar and wind power are common forms of distributed generation and excess power can feed back into the grid. Earlier this month, California’s Pacific Gas & Electric demonstrated (CNet) that hybrid car owners could potentially sell power stored in their cars’ batteries back to the grid.

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