Gretchen Bakke, PhD in Cultural Anthropology and Professor at McGill University, in a fascinating book called “The Grid: The Fraying Wires between Americans and Our Energy Future,” outlines the history of the power grid and its vulnerability. She describes the battles that were fought in the early days between advocates for privately owned, small, special use power plants and those who promoted monopolistic utility companies. The utility company monopolists won that battle and developed the grid into a system that connects large plants (coal-fired and nuclear) with industrial users and large populations. It was an adequate system to meet the needs of most users over the last century.

With the onset of deregulation in the 1990s and increasingly complex customer demands the grid is more and more fragile. Evidence of this is found in the increasingly frequent blackouts that disrupt the lives of thousands and even millions. Storms like Sandy that hit New Jersey and New York in 2012 highlighted the problem. During the aftermath of these storms people came to realize just how unreliable the large-scale power system can be.

In late 2017 three months after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico only 65 percent of power had been restored. The island has 30,000 miles of electrical transmission lines that cannot be replaced quickly.

Four large storms including Maria hit in the 2017 hurricane season, causing widespread damage and power outages. Total cost estimates are as high as $400 billion. Economic research firm Rhodium Group estimates the damage of Irma’s impact as equal to Sandy at 750 million customer-hours while Maria’s impact was 50 percent greater at 1.2 billion customer-hours.

Major storms are not the only pressing issue for the grid. The rapid expansion of renewable energy, mostly wind and solar, presents a challenge because operators have little control over when that power is produced. But the trend will continue as more coal-fired power is shut down and renewables are now, in some cases, cheaper than coal. In a last-minute deal the 30 percent tax credit for investment in renewables was preserved in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act signed in late December. That credit starts to wind down in 2019, reducing to 10 percent by 2022 for commercial projects.

One October day in 2017 wind turbines provided one-half of all electricity in Texas. The grid had trouble finding customers for that much power as it surged through the lines. By 2018 forecasts call for up to 28,000 megawatts of installed wind power capacity in Texas, equivalent to 56 average-sized, coal-fired plants. Coal-fired power will continue to lose market share.

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

With competitive rates for electricity from wind and solar the use of renewable energy is accelerating. Even faster adoption of renewable power awaits improved technology for storage which seem likely to come in new forms perhaps as compressed air storage or molten salt batteries. Some examples are listed here.

The renewable energy model involves low voltages sent short distances, the exact opposite of the centralized model of large power plants and high-voltage and vulnerable transmission lines that make up the current grid design. Electricity production centred on smaller, distributed sources could relegate the conventional grid to a backup role and improve the grid’s resilience.

In a period of rapid change in electrical power production and distribution there will be challenges and opportunities. Risks are high but rewards could be even higher for those who see the disruption coming.

Hilliard MacBeth

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