In Part 1, I went through the problem of power grid security, and how it affects other vital services outside of electricity (water, telecommunications, etc.). I covered one notable attack, and how power companies and the government addressed it, and rather successfully. But, terrorists with rifles (who have tried this around the world) are far from the only threat to the power grid. In this follow-up, I want to discuss some of the other threats to the power grid to show the necessity of further solutions, and then discuss how clean technologies can solve it.
The Grid Is In Generally Poor Shape
While a direct physical attack on the power grid’s most vulnerable components is a big deal, the problem has been addressed since the attack in 2013 woke people in the United States up to the threat. But that doesn’t leave us in the clear. There are plenty of other threats to the power grid that we may never be able to fully protect it from.
One of the biggest threats we’ve seen is from us, the users. We don’t want to pay much on our bill, so power companies try to cut costs where they can. Over decades, this has led to aging infrastructure that sometimes falls short of demand at the worst possible time. While I won’t be one of the “I told ya so!” types (because I’m not a Republican), it’s hard to not point at some of the PG&E-caused wildfires that blinded and choked people in California in 2020. Hey, I’m asthmatic and I’m choking on my own wildfire smoke in El Paso, so I’m with you guys that it sucks.
For those unfamiliar, the fires were caused by “sagging” utility lines. As more and more people needed electricity to run air conditioners and cope with the afternoon heat, power lines heated up and drooped down into the dry trees, giving them a very badly-timed jolt of electricity that led to massive wildfires which destroyed homes and businesses and ended lives. To keep that from happening again, utilities had to cut power to customers in rolling blackouts the following year, leaving customers without other power options suffering in the heat.
It wasn’t long before Texans (some still smug from mocking Californians for their misery) suffered their own problems with the big freeze of 2021. Unprepared for unusually cold weather, power generation of all kinds (including coal and methane plants) froze up and left Texans in the cold and dark. The final death toll was 246 people. My own grandmother nearly died in the cold, but was saved when some kind neighbors gave my aunt some firewood.
So, the problem of grids that just aren’t up to the task isn’t a problem that only affects the “left coast.” The whole country has these problems, and they aren’t going away anytime soon.
The Biggest Threat: Electromagnetic Pulse
Assuming we don’t destroy the grid ourselves from neglect, warfare could lead to an even worse outcome: basically roasting the whole thing with a high-altitude nuclear blast. This wouldn’t hurt anybody on the ground directly, but it would shower the earth below with some high energy particles that would overload the power grid.
The threat of EMP is often overblown in fiction and the media, though. Most movies and TV shows that deal with the issue make it look like “anything with a chip” will be instantly fried. The science says otherwise, though. It’s not little computer chips that get hurt from EMP (whether it comes from a nuclear weapon or just really lousy space weather), but the really long wires that are a problem.
The frequency of EMP is such that it’s only resonant with long, long wires. The shorter wires in your house, car, or electronic devices just aren’t long enough to collect that energy up to become a problem. Government studies have shown that 90% of cars (including modern electronic fuel injected cars) won’t skip a beat. Most of the rest will be OK if you disconnect the battery cable for a bit and plug it back in (resetting the electronics).
But, that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be a major problem. The power grid is where all of the long wires are, and all of that extra energy would be like attacking every power station and substation like the attack in 2013, but at the same time. There aren’t enough spare parts to put things back online quickly, so many people would lose power for months.
I don’t think I’d have to explain that this would be far worse than what California and Texas experienced.
Preparing For The Worst With CleanTech
Rather than accept the doom and the gloom, we need to start preparing for all of these problems by changing the way we make and use energy in the United States. Not only can we take the stress off the grid and prepare for the worst times, but we can also cut our fossil fuel use and massively lower our carbon footprints. In other words, we can improve both national security and the environment at the same time.
The formula is relatively simple, and CleanTechnica readers have known about it for years: distributed solar+storage.
If enough homes and businesses become producers instead of consumers, the grid will still be needed, but it will be possible to greatly reduce the strain on it. Should the worst happen, at least some people and businesses will have power and can help everyone else out. If utility providers move to a more decentralized model, the rest of the population could be covered in all but the very worst of conditions. Add in portable solar systems (solar generators), solar vehicle charging, and more efficient forms of transport, and we could make the disruption minimal.
This isn’t something that could happen overnight, but it’s a worthy goal that shouldn’t be a political problem if we articulate the argument well. Even those who traditionally like fossil fuel companies have to admit that generating most of our own electricity and running more on electricity improves national security, for example. For the remaining fossil fuel users, prices could be a lot lower by lowering demand.
With gas average at a record high right now, who wouldn’t want that?
Featured image by Vijay Govindan, CleanTechnica.
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