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Tech by VICE

It's Time to Hurricane-Proof the Grid

It’d be amazing if Sandy’s 90 mph winds and roaring storm surges didn’t put out the lights, so precarious is our patchwork and aged electrical grid.

by Brian Merchant
Oct 30 2012, 12:00am

Hurricane Sandy left 8 million people in the dark across 15 states.

“This will be the largest storm related outage in our history,” a Con Edison spokesman told the press, noting that 670,000 people were without power in New York City alone.

Trees toppled over onto transmission lines; they knocked out 200 separate ones just in Staten Island. Flooding threatened New Jersey’s transmission stations—which decrease or increase voltage to route electricity from power plants to customers—and utilities were forced to turn a large number of them off. Hundreds of thousands were left without electricity. Rising water levels even threatened the cooling systems of two separate nuclear reactors, forcing one offline and another into a second stage threat and reduced power output.

Oh yeah, and at least one of those transmission substations flat out blew up. One exploded right in New York City:

And that was responsible for leaving most of lower Manhattan without power.

All this surprises no one; we expect hurricanes to leave us in the dark. It’d be amazing if Sandy’s 90 mph winds and roaring storm surges didn’t put out the lights, so precarious is our patchwork and aged electrical grid. And sure enough, millions will go without power, perhaps for days, as workers frantically try to repair the damaged grid and bring the stations back online. But hurricanes no longer need to leave millions of people without power. We have both the know-how and the tech to better storm-proof our electrical grid; we just don’t yet have the will to make the necessary investments.

There are two big reasons that the lights inevitably go out when the storm hits:

1) We’ve built our society to rely on centralized power. In most places across the country, entire cities and towns get their energy from a single power source. Most likely, it’s a big coal, gas, or nuclear power plant. But if there’s any disruption between the source and your house—those fallen trees or out-of-order substations, etc—you’re out of luck. And since we often live a long ways from that lone power provider, that means there’s ample opportunity for an accident, and an outage, to occur. Look at the map of the outages, and you’ll see they’re clustered in specific regions:

2) Our grid is “dumb.” It’s old-fashioned. It can’t tell when there’s a disruption, when it should stop the flow of power, or when it should route the electricity another way. Lena Hansen, of the Rocky Mountain Institute, recently explained the problem to NPR:

“The grid really isn’t very smart. It’s dumb in many ways. Electric companies often can’t detect when there’s an outage. They frequently rely on us to call them up, and tell them that our power is out,” she said.

You’ve heard of the smart grid; this is why we need it. Smart grid technology can send utilities all sorts of information; about demand, usage, and, importantly for disaster scenarios, when a line is down. So much of our modern little society now absolutely relies on a steady flow of electricity—see: the 200 patients that had to be transferred from NYU hospital in the middle of a hurricane because the power was out—and so much disaster could be prevented if it was more reliably and safely delivered. Some of Sandy’s most preventable deaths were electrocutions that came about when live wires dipped into puddles. A smarter grid would be able to better prevent tragedies like that.

But we also need to move away from big, central power, too. We need more community and individually-managed power; we need more distributed power. We need solar rooftops and local wind farms. Maybe even offshore wave power or tiny localized nuclear reactors. Small modular nuclear reactors or on the horizon, after all. And we’re already moving in this direction with solar; right now, there’s the equivalent of four coal-fired power plants on the nation’s rooftops. And yes, those solar panels can survive hurricanes. However, adequate battery storage tech is still a ways off, so solar alone won’t yet allow us to keep the lights on throughout a dark, hurricane’d night. But more localized, diversified energy supply means there’s a much better chance you’ll be able to run your laptop the next day.

Now, we need a smarter, more distributed grid not just to hurricane-proof our power from hurricanes, but to guard against other potential calamities like earthquakes and national security threats. Top military generals have lamented, on record, the fragility and vulnerability of the grid as it stands now. Most of all, we need to guard against further climate change. A shift toward smart, distributed power could also mean a shift towards cleaner, more efficient energy. If we better manage our electricity, we waste less, and we’ll shut down the carbon-spewing behemoths of old, those rusty central coal plants, in the process. The future is smarter, more nimble, cleaner power. And it may not be hurricane-proof, but it wouldn’t leave 8 million groping for candles, either.