from Net Politics and Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program

President Trump Should Make the Power Grid Great Again

April 5, 2017

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Earlier this week, I published a paper making recommendations on how to protect the power grid from a cyberattack. Although my main argument is that government needs to create incentives for utility owners and operators to invest in cybersecurity, that investment should take place in part of a massive new investment to improve the grid’s resilience. It also needs to be redesigned to handle the shifting supply from renewable resources and be capable of moving electricity from where it is produced to where it is consumed.

As I researched the report, I heard from multiple industry groups a variation of a theme that went like this: “The U.S. power grid supplies electricity that is reliable, cheap and increasingly green.” Yet, by international standards, none of the three are true.

The average American endures upwards of six hours per year without electricity. That puts the United States in the bottom category of the developed world with Portugal and Lithuania. Singapore, Germany, Japan and Denmark have close to zero down time. Urban Chinese experience less than half the downtime of an average American. It’s also a 285 percent increase since 1982, when the Department of Energy began collecting the data.

While power may be available 99.5 percent of the time, the economic losses from these outages are estimated at $150 billion per year. That figure puts it on par with the lower end of estimates for cybercrime. Yet while there are front page articles almost every day about cybercrime in its many forms, few people think much about the electricity that makes modern life possible until you cannot reheat a hot pocket in your microwave.

And yet, despite this relatively poor level of reliability, U.S. electricity does not come cheap at an average of $0.18 per kilowatt hour. And, while there are signs that despite White House support for burning more coal, a renewable energy future is here to stay. U.S. power remains some of the dirtiest in the world. In a study of 34 countries developed countries, the United States came in 26th for the dirtiest power.

While less than a month ago, President Trump called for spending $1 trillion on improving America’s infrastructure, the budget released by the White House makes no mention of the commitment. It in fact would cut 5.6 percent from the Department of Energy while increasing spending within the Department on nuclear weapons programs.

President Trump pledged to replace “crumbling infrastructure” with “new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports and railways gleaming across our beautiful land.” While these are no doubt worthwhile efforts, if the President’s goal is to spur economic growth, improving the resilience of the power grid so it can handle weather events and squirrels, as well as cyberattacks, should be the top priority. The digital economy, growing at 7 percent per year (as opposed to 2 percent for the rest of the economy) disappears when the power goes away.

For now, that has only happened in the United States due to weather events, high demand, and those pesky squirrels (or a combination of all three). In the future, longer and more sustained blackouts and associated economic harm may be caused by malicious actors through cyberattacks.

The United States cannot be great again unless the infrastructure that supports its economy is also great. Right now, the United States is not a leader when it comes to the reliability, cost, or environmental impact of its aging power system.

The Trump administration should work with Congress and the private owners and operators of the grid to put in place a plan to modernize the grid. In doing so, they should ensure that updated systems improve security and create a defensible architecture so that attacks on the grid can be detected, that information shared across the industry, and malicious actors held accountable. That would truly be great.

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