20 May 2015
By Darren Hammell
A militant group’s attack on Pakistan’s electric grid on Jan. 25 caused a blackout that affected 80 percent of the nation. Extremists attacked a transmission line that was key to the stability of the grid.
What if extremists struck the US grid in a similar fashion?
A coordinated attack could destroy access to electricity across large parts of the United States for months, according to a 2012 report from the National Academy of Sciences, “Terrorism and the Electric Power Delivery System.” This would cause health emergencies and damage the national economy.
A New York Times article found that by blowing up targeted transmission lines and substations, or firing projectiles at them, militants could set an avalanche of system failures in motion. During the months that it would take to repair these outages, many people could be at risk; injuries or fatalities might occur as hospitals struggle to address the emergency.
The US has already experienced attacks. In April 2013, gunshots struck a power substation in Silicon Valley, a hub of technology and innovation. Reuters reported on the incident, which was attributed to vandalism. Jason King, a spokesman for Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), encouraged local residents to conserve energy during the repair.
Building a Resilient US Grid
In this country, we are fortunate to have electricity that is relatively affordable compared to that of other developed nations.
However, the US also has many challenges: making the most of limited fuels, generating clean electricity, assuring that the electricity we produce is not wasted, upgrading an aging infrastructure, and making our electric grid more resilient to disruptions.
Current technology can help with these challenges, as well as prevent the power grid from being a battleground. Advanced energy management systems can provide electricity safely and resist terrorism, vandalism, and other unexpected disruptions.
Advanced energy management systems include microgrids that can be islanded from the larger grid in case of emergencies. Microgrids can ensure that hospitals, government buildings, corporate headquarters, colleges, and homes still have electricity in the event of a power outage.
Distinct from a typical backup power system, microgrids operate all the time and provide efficiency and economic benefits when the electric is working normally, but they are also available for prolonged outages.
Deploying microgrids strategically, where they are needed, could greatly reduce the hardships caused by sustained power outages. For example, microgrids could power emergency shelters, grocery stores, and communications systems.
Expanding Electricity Access in Developing Nations
These advanced power systems also offer strong benefits to developing nations, where there is no electric grid, an unreliable grid, or a ‘bad-grid area’, where electricity is only available for part of each day. Often these regions rely on diesel or kerosene, expensive, and dirty imported fuels.
Wind or solar energy, often found in microgrids, in many cases offer energy at a much lower cost than conventional fossil fuel plants in these locations. Moreover, wind and solar are simpler and faster to install, and can be located near their users.
Of late, there has been much discussion about how a lack of clean water and shortages of lighting and appliances hamper growth in the developing world. For example, students in communities without electric lighting are not able to read after dark. Public safety is a greater issue, especially in areas threatened by civil conflict. Refrigerated food and medicine is limited, and it is difficult to distribute clean water. Reliable, affordable electricity is the missing link that can help developing nations move ahead.
Distributed energy systems can enable the rapid installation of clean electricity in developing nations. When there is no grid available, providing a system with solar panels and integrated battery storage will vastly simplify the deployment of reliable electricity.
That equipment, combined with a diesel generator system, can save 75 percent of the fuel required to supply electricity. It can also dramatically reduce generator maintenance.
Crime prevention, education, sanitation, health, and the economy can all benefit from advanced energy management systems that maintain a stable electricity supply. In times where extremism threatens the well-being of many countries globally, grid safety is public safety.
Darren Hammell is the co-founder and chief strategy officer at Princeton Power Systems.