One of the reasons that we’re so vulnerable to massive blackouts is the nature of the electrical grid system itself. Built in piecemeal fashion during the previous century, the U.S. grid draws electricity from large, centralized sources—massive coal-burning power plants, for example—and then distributes it over long distances, through a sprawling network of interconnected parts, which are dependent upon one another. Along the way, there are myriad pieces in the system that can break down. And if one piece fails, it may trigger a cascading collapse through the rest of the system. In fact, according to a recent article published by a team of physicists, the system’s sheer complexity almost makes it inevitable that big blackouts will occur.
“Our national electric grid struggles to deliver safe, reliable, and affordable power,” David Crane, chief executive of utility company NRG Energy, wrote earlier this year. “It’s not for lack of effort or money, but rather because the American power industry deploys technology designed in the 1800s to manage a system of wires and wooden poles that is ill-suited to the weather challenges of the 21st century.”
But it doesn't have to be that way. While we’re worrying about the vulnerability of our aging grid, Germany—a nation that suffered a massive grid failure in 2006 that deprived an estimated 10 million homes across Europe of power--is eyeing an electrical system that researchers say could provide a stable source of electricity around the clock, without fear of blackouts.
The difference is that Germany’s grid of the future, unlike the present U.S. system, won’t rely on big power plants and long transmission lines. Instead, Germany is creating a decentralized “smart” grid—essentially, a system composed of many small, potentially self-sufficient grids, that will obtain much of their power at the local level from renewable energy sources, such as solar panels, wind turbines and biomass generators. And the system will be equipped with sophisticated information and communications technology (ICT) that will enable it to make the most efficient use of its energy resources.
Some might scoff at the idea that a nation could depend entirely upon renewable energy for its electrical needs, because both sunshine and wind tend to be variable, intermittent producers of electricity. But the Germans plan to get around that problem by using “linked renewables”—that is, by combining multiple sources of renewable energy, which has the effect of smoothing out the peaks and valleys of the supply. As Kurt Rohrig, the deputy director of Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Wind Energy and Energy System Technology, explained in a recent article on Scientific American’s website: "Each source of energy—be it wind, sun or bio-gas—has its strengths and weaknesses. If we manage to skillfully combine the different characteristics of the regenerative energies, we can ensure the power supply for Germany."
A decentralized “smart” grid powered by local renewable energy might help protect the U.S. against a catastrophic blackout as well, proponents say. “A more diversified supply with more distributed generation inherently helps reduce vulnerability,” Mike Jacobs, a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, noted in a recent blog post on the organization’s website.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s SmartGrid.gov website, such a system would have the ability to bank surplus electricity from wind turbines and solar panels in numerous storage locations around the system. Utility operators could tap into those reserves if electricity generation ebbed.
Additionally, in the event of a large-scale disruption, a smart grid would have the ability to switch areas over to power generated by utility customers themselves, such as solar panels that neighborhood residents have installed on their roofs. By combining these "distributed generation" resources, a community could keep its health center, police department, traffic lights, phone system, and grocery store operating during emergencies, DOE’s website notes.
"There are lots of resources that contribute to grid resiliency and flexibility," Allison Clements, an official with the Natural Resource Defense Council, wrote in a recent blog post on the NRDC website. "Happily, they are the same resources that are critical to achieving a clean energy, low carbon future."
Joel Gordes, electrical power research director for the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit, a private-sector organization that investigates terrorist threats against the electrical grid and other targets, also thinks that such a decentralized grid "could carry benefits not only for protecting us to a certain degree from cyber-attacks but also providing power during any number of natural hazards." But Gordes does offer a caveat—such a system might also offer more potential points of entry for hackers to plant malware and disrupt the entire grid. Unless that vulnerability is addressed, he warned in an e-mail, "full deployment of [smart grid] technology could end up to be disastrous."
The U.S. actually has been moving—although more slowly than Germany—toward a modernized grid that increasingly will utilize renewable energy sources.
In 2013, according to DOA statistics, renewables such as solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal power contributed nearly seven percent of the nation’s electrical generation—a substantial increase over the two percent that such sources contributed back in 2003.