“Extreme weather events are becoming much worse and there are more of them,” Silverstein says. “We need to be planning the distribution system and modifying recovery processes to deal with those things, not just wringing our hands and acting like this is normal. What is ‘normal’ has changed and it’s getting worse.”The United States got a taste of massive grid failure in 2003 , when an overgrown tree in Ohio tripped a transmission line and a software bug failed to alert the utility. This mundane event triggered a series of failures that left 55 million people in the northeast without power for several hours, with some areas waiting days for the lights to go back on. The economic cost of the blackout was estimated to be about $6 billion, and it contributed to the deaths of at least 11 people. In the aftermath, the US government enacted a number of policies designed to prevent blackouts of this magnitude from happening again.Those reforms have helped make widespread blackouts of the type seen in Argentina exceptionally rare in the United States, says Ross Baldick, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Texas, Austin. He says resilience against these types of events is also baked into the design of the US grid at the transmission and generation layer. For example, the operators of modern grids adhere to an “N-1” standard, which means that the system operates normally following an outage of a single generation station or transmission line (the ‘N’) by routing around the crippled entity.Even in the event of multiple transmission failures, grid operators can perform controlled shutdowns of the grid to prevent further damage from overloaded transmission lines and confine the extent of the outage. Furthermore, the US grid is divided into three major regional grids—the Eastern, Western and Texas interconnections. If one of the regional grids was knocked offline, Baldick says the other two grids would have enough capacity to keep functioning.In other words, the only way the entire US grid or even an entire interconnection is going down is through cyberwarfare , a coordinated attack on key infrastructure points, or via the Trump administration’s favorite energy bogeyman, electromagnetic pulses. Each of these scenarios is relatively unlikely to occur. The US ramped up cybersecurity for its energy infrastructure after it became clear it was being targeted by foreign hackers , physical security at key transmission sites and generating stations has been bolstered post-2003, and the grid can probably survive an EMP just fine .
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This means that the key to energy security in the United States is less about the bulk power system and more about hardening the grid at the level of local distribution. Silverstein says that many electric customers, utilities, and policy makers are already taking steps to make the distribution system more resilient, like operating microgrids or having onsite energy generation and storage . But there’s still more to be done. Planning distribution networks to incorporate more smart microgrids and switches between local networks will make it easier to survive a blackout and restore power; building energy efficient buildings will reduce strain on the grid; moving equipment out of current and future flood zones will decrease blackout times; or simply building tougher electric poles can all contribute to decreasing outages in the future.So while America may not face a threat of large-scale blackout anytime soon, there is little doubt Americans will see increasing localized blackouts in the future. The time to start planning for this eventuality is now, before the lights go out.
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