The Mid-Atlantic states from about Baltimore to Norfolk were hit in late June by what meteorologists call a “Super Derecho” — a giant squall line on land. Trees were toppled within minutes, which abruptly brought down electric power lines.
More than 5 million households lost electricity, and it took utility companies several days to repair wires and restore power.
It was a case of power delivery threatening to assume national security proportions.
But the world was not slowing down for Washington while it was on its knees. Just 48 hours after the violent storm barreled through Washington, tough new sanctions intended to take a serious bite out of Iran’s oil industry kicked in. The United States and its European and Asian allies ratcheted up the pressure on Tehran to abandon its nuclear program.
Iran acted defiantly that weekend. It launched long-range missiles in a provocatively timed military exercise meant to intimidate the United States and Israel. The price of crude went back up, as a crisis premium was factored in. And traders were worried that the Strait of Hormuz might be closed due to hostilities.
If someone in Iran had wanted a fight, U.S. military forces already forward deployed in the region would have been ready to strike back. Significant naval assets were already assembled in the Arabian Sea. At the same time, the bulk of Washington’s ruling class was not on the job because of the storm.
Instead, they were attending to the safety and survival of their immediate families, calling utilities to remove dangerous wires arcing on their front lawns, clearing debris, searching for places to recharge electronic devices and looking for ice to keep the food in the fridge safe.
This was not the first time in recent memory that Washington had been shut down by a natural disaster. In fact, the power outages associated with the Super Derecho were the third such incident in a little over a year, and the fifth in two and a half years.
The degree of trouble is even more worrisome when one notes that the “cloud” computing solution adopted by Amazon, and which also supports Netflix and other services, crashed on the night of the big June storm. It seems that Amazon’s “cloud” was centered in Northern Virginia, and it simply couldn’t withstand the abuse.
Even worse, 911 service was knocked out in Northern Virginia. Residents were instructed to dial their police or fire stations directly, or even to just show up in person and ask for help. How this message got to people when their power was out and their TVs and radios were silent, as well as computers low on battery power, was never explained.
This all raises some prickly questions about energy security. Not the garden variety discussion of assuring delivery of oil from distant providers whose regimes are not the most stable or most friendly to the United States, but rather how one can guarantee delivery of electric power from the domestic utilities the nation’s capital depends on.
As the government and the military move to commercially developed information systems, the crashing of the 911 network and Amazon’s cloud raise serious questions. Just how dependent is the federal government becoming on technology that may be good enough for web-based business and even local police, but not good enough to assure uninterrupted operations of national and homeland security agencies?
If Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, the founding fathers of America’s electricity industry, were here today, they would surely be amazed by the wireless Internet and the ability of consumers to carry devices such as wireless tablets that let them tap millions of databases. They would be amazed by computers that can juggle thousands of planes in flight or allow for purchasing items on credit. They would not recognize most of what we take for granted today.
What they would recognize would be the grid. The stringing out of power lines along poles from a central generation plant would seem oddly frozen in time to them.
One need only remember the lessons from the Great Snow Storm of 1888 that buried New York City. Countless people died, and poles overburdened by power and phone lines snapped, which essentially threw the city back into darkness. The city government ordered that from then on all power and other utility lines be buried.
Edison and Tesla would notice that few other major metropolises followed New York’s leadership. Only new lines are buried and those perhaps of the immediate downtown, while the power is delivered to older parts of cities by the antiquated pole system. Tens of millions of Americans today have no more reliable power than their great grandparents did.
Every time a storm or other natural disaster strikes, utilities simply go out and put Humpty Dumpty together again. While this may be the cheapest way for the utilities to do their business, it certainly is not for the customers.
Public utility commissions that regulate the utilities look the other way if the power outages are few and far between.
Defenders of the current system protest that putting power lines underground is costly. Numbers go from $1 million to $15 million per mile. But utilities should look to the local phone companies for a more cost-effective solution. Namely, burying the major distribution cables, and leaving the last few hundred feet above ground, on the poles. Police, fire and other critical sites should be wired underground. This way, service would not be lost to entire neighborhoods, just pockets of homes, stores and offices. And rewiring would not have to be done first for the critical sites. It could proceed immediately to the isolated pockets.
Advocates of so-called “smart grids” say that these are less vulnerable to disturbance from natural disaster. That may or may not be true; it depends on the nature of the disaster and the cause for the interruptions. Smart grids do maximize the efficiency of power production and delivery.
But we don’t need a “smart grid” to protect us from derechos or hurricanes. We need a “hard grid.”
In contrast to other network architecture, in general, when it comes to power grids, one cannot simply build failsafes or redundancies the way one can for critical applications in other contexts. Running two wires along poles from the power plant to a house only jacks up costs and makes power no less interruptible.
Some folks would like to ditch the grid and go directly to distributed generation — meaning each home or business generates its own power. That’s still not cost effective today: Even though the price of solar panels has dropped, fuel cell technology remains out of reach. Even if solar panels were cheaper, it has yet to be demonstrated that they would survive a major storm. Panels flying off homes and offices would not only represent dangerous projectiles that damage other properties and even take lives, but they would probably take weeks to replace.
In addition to burying some but not all power lines, there is a need to have better and more timely weather warnings. There should be more modeling of severe weather events, especially of those that are unusual but not unprecedented.
Current weather models are too heavily weighted with data from the last 10 or 20 or even 30 years. What is needed are models that take into better account the weather of the past 100 to 200 years.
Of course, someone has to pay for all this.
The federal government should study the direct and indirect costs from loss of power in the past 20 years in major U.S. cities and their suburbs and determine direct costs — such as Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance after a hurricane — as well as how much the nation lost in terms of economic activity and how that translated into lost tax revenues for the federal government.
In Washington, D.C., alone, the cost of burying power lines could vary from about $1 billion to almost $6 billion, depending on what proportion of lines is buried. A federal project to spend a fraction of those direct and indirect costs to every American citizen, spread over say 10 years of hardening the grid, would be justified and amortized relatively quickly.
We can’t pretend to be the world’s last superpower, yet still run it out of a city that has a power infrastructure as undependable as one in a developing nation.
It is time to rethink the nation’s current understanding of “energy security.”
Energy Security Starts with Hardening Power Grids
National Defense, November 2012
By Michael G. Frodl & John M. Manoyan