There’s nothing like six days without electricity in the middle of a record heat wave to leave one with the feeling that somebody must be doing something wrong. I shouldn’t really complain too much. Some of our neighbors had trees crash through their houses during the storm, and others went more than a week without power afterwards. And when the utility trucks rolled up our street at 10 pm last Thursday night, it was obvious that the crews – brought in from all over the northeast, including Canada -- were working as hard as possible in extremely difficult conditions.
So who should we blame? My former CFR colleague Stephen Flynn, now at the Northeastern University, has a pretty good set of answers in a report titled Powering America’s Energy Resilience, which was released in May by the Center for National Policy. Vulnerability to the kind of lengthy power outage we just experienced, the report argues, is a failure of collective responsibility; the United States has simply not made it a priority to sustain and improve the infrastructure that is vital to our daily lives. Former Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson once described the United States as “a superpower with a third-world grid.”
Anyone who tried to sleep without air conditioning after days of triple digit heat can readily appreciate the report’s call to action. “As a stepping-off-point for undertaking this vital task,” the authors write, “the American populous would do well to recalibrate its thinking about the role that infrastructure plays in supporting our way of life.” Indeed. My family coped because there were still plenty of places – restaurants, malls, ice skating rinks – that had power restored quickly, but I can’t imagine the scenario if there had been a widespread power outage that closed these places as well.
And worse is certainly possible. Along with extreme weather, there are increasingly frequent mechanical failures among electrical systems that are half a century or more old. The huge August 2003 blackout that affected some 50 million people in the Northeast and Midwest United States and in Canada, was cause by a cascading series of mechanical failures, compounded by human error. Pepco, which supplies power to the Maryland suburbs, usually blames bad weather and tall trees, but in fact nearly half of all power outages in its service area are caused by mechanical failures, twice as many as are caused by downed trees and limbs.
As electrical systems are increasingly automated, they are also more vulnerable to cyber attacks that could leave vast areas of the country without power. The study quotes cyber expert James Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who says that the electrical grid is the most likely target for cyber-terrorism.
The report is full of sensible recommendations, not just for electricity but for other forms of energy: reducing demand through smarter technologies, increasing domestic supply, upgrading the electrical grid. None of this is especially cheap; the report suggests that just meeting electricity demand over the next two decades will require $300 billion in transmission investments. Smart grid upgrades to improve efficiency and reliability would add another $90 billion.
But it became very clear to me after several days in the sweltering dark that the alternative is a whole lot worse.