Meeting the Climate Change Threat
Making Mitigation and Adaptation Equal Partners?
While climate change must be considered the most existential threat to ourselves and the electric grid, there are a number of other threats to grid operation that cannot be ignored. The concept espoused by the utility companies of "hardening" the grid, even with special wires, upgraded poles and vegetation management, needs to be seriously revisited. Physical weaknesses are not the only issue that needs addressing when providing security and resilience.
Some think the current grid architecture is incapable of providing the robust system required for public health, safety, security and ease of restoration demanded today. This is particularly true in our increasingly digitally dependent age, where consumers demand the assurance of higher reliability and power quality. If it were just mega-storms such as Irene, the Halloween Nor’Easter in 2011, Sandy in 2012 and the more recent tornados, the hardening tactics might have some validity. But multiple threats to the grid call for a more holistic, all-hazards approach rather than merely piecemeal efforts.
Threats to the grid include:
Fuel supply interruption/cost escalation
Physical security of generation, transmission, distribution, Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) including natural hazards such as the above mentioned storms, hurricanes and tornadoes, potential solar storms, and climate change
Foreign dependency or disruption of globalized supply chains for critical materials (Generation Step-Up transformers, rare earth ores, other minerals like cobalt, lithium for batteries, etc.)
Photo credit: Union of Concerned Scientists
Cyberthreats including distributed denial of service, worms, viruses, electromagnetic pulse, embedded codes in foreign sourced components and cyber weaknesses in controls and premature Smartgrid (IoT) deployment. Gas supply lines can also be at risk from cyber threats
A combined or "blended" combination of the aforementioned threats. For instance, a cyberattack in the midst of a blizzard might amplify outages and casualties
Other threats and considerations (including “unintended consequences”), adding complexity to an already tightly-coupled, complex system like the electric grid.
To explain that last term, currently we operate the grid where pretty much everything is connected to everything else. Being tightly-coupled is like pushing on a balloon; if you press on one part, the result can be felt almost instantaneously on other parts throughout.
In 1978 I wrote a letter to the editor about the vulnerability of the electric grid noting, "...[she] totally ignored the problem at hand - centrally generated electricity is a vulnerable genie… even from a security view (national or otherwise) such a fragile [system] is suicide."
To be perfectly honest, even though I used the term "centrally generated electricity" to describe the grid, I had little idea of exactly what that meant. That did not come until renowned environmentalist and energy strategist, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins’ 1982 book, Brittle Power explained decentralization as:
Consisting of many small units of supply and distribution with redundancy for back up
Units being geographically dispersed but close to demand centers
Interconnected with many units and not dependent on just a few critical links and nodes
Continuing to operate in isolated modes, so failures tend to be more limited
Providing storage as a buffer so failures tend to be gradual and "elegant" rather than abrupt
Employing short links, at the distribution level (minimizing transmission runs)
Employing qualities of user controllability, comprehensibility, and user independence.
These attributes make up what are today termed distributed resources (DR) sometimes termed distributed energy resources (DER). They are far more in line with meeting the needs of climate change adaptation than the centralized grid we currently have that uses just a few, large, distant generators. We must engage in upgrading the robustness of energy systems via microgrids, made up of these decentralized sources. First serving hospitals, town halls, police and fire stations and then other critical services and systems, they can allow continuity of operations with only minor disruption. Eventually our entire grid could be configured in this way.
Currently, three quarters of climate change funding is spent on mitigation efforts to stop buildup of greenhouse gases. This leaves little for funding climate adaptation such as grid restructuring for decentralization. However, new reports are surfacing that show we may have already lost the mitigation battle as evidenced by faster formation of tropical storms, tornadoes, flooding, fires, Arctic ice melts, etc. This is NOT to say we should minimize mitigation efforts but, rather, how we should best harness such efforts.
To conclude, we need to invest more into decentralized technologies that provide both mitigation and adaptation advantages, something centralized sources cannot do. At first this may appear counter to popular thought, but efforts for mitigation may need reevaluation. Now may be the time to invest a greater proportion of our resources and efforts into those practices and technologies that provide both objectives, bent more in favor of adaptation. In the end analysis, it may be the most important decision we have to make in the near term. It will also dictate the well-being of ourselves and millions of our planetary citizens in the not-too-distant future.
Joel Gordes is an Energy and Environmental Security Strategist and Sierra Club Connecticut member for nearly 30 years.