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Protecting 'The Vital Cornerstone of Modern American Society'

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Nevelyn Black is an independent writer with a background in broadcast and a keen interest in renewable energy.  In the last few years, she transitioned from celebrity interviews and film shoots...

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How vulnerable is the grid in this country?  Our grid provides power to crucial services, operations and technology that are necessary for everyday life.  The greater concern is that the grid is vulnerable to widespread blackouts that could lead to loss of life, serious injury, civil disorder, and significant economic loss. According to The Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress the power grid is the “vital cornerstone of modern American society” (2014, p. ii).  What is being done to protect it from system failures, climate change and cyberattacks?  Suggestions on the table include shoring up grid resilience through the creation of a unified electric power grid, customer behavioral shifts to maintain balance of the grid,  and new technology that uses thinner superconductor wires that are cooled with liquid nitrogen.  Sound too far-fetched and futuristic?  Not to researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the University of Southern California and the Department of Homeland Security.

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A Unified Grid 

Having four separate, synchronous grids, (the Eastern, Western, Texas, and Quebec interconnection) creates vulnerability during times of crisis. The challenges involved with a truly unified grid include transmission capacity and the addition of intermittent sources of variable generation.  Generation from renewable resources is subject to sudden and frequent change making it harder to balance generation load.  In his book Critical Infrastructure Protection in Homeland Security: Defending a Networked Nation (3rd Ed.), Ted Lewis said, “The North American Electric Grid has sufficient power, but it lacks the transmission and distribution capacity needed to meet surge demand. (2020, p. 281).”  NREL is addressing that challenge in a report entitled, The Value of Increased HVDC Capacity Between Eastern and Western U.S. Grids: The Interconnections Seam Study.  The report supports the idea that a unified national grid would improve resilience, smooth variability of generation and be more cost-efficient.

Navigating Behavioral Shifts

“There’s this idea in the power systems community that consumers themselves can be a grid asset,” says University of Southern California environmental engineer Kelly Sanders. Sanders is studying how the grid is evolving and researching a strategy that requires customers to change their behavior.  The goal is to get customers to shift peak demand away from the return-to-home rush.  Pre-cooling or pre-heating would ask customers to turn up the AC or heat earlier in the day when the grid is supplying clean solar or wind energy. “You can get a lot of electricity customers to use electricity much more when the sun is out, and then decrease that usage when the sun goes down, so better aligning our behavior with the availability of wind and solar,” says Sanders. Admittedly, there are several variables that need to be taken into account like location, home efficiency/insulation and size. But systems like Google Nest are already seeing positive results.  “Smart homes and smart businesses are actually going to be a critical element in being kind of the balancing pieces to the intermittency,” says Ben Brown, director of product management at Google Nest. 

New Technology

“This really is the first installation in the world of this resilient electric grid technology,” said American Superconductor Co. President Daniel P. McGahn. This new technology, partially funded by the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology directorate, uses thin superconductor wires that are insulated and braided into a cable injected with a flow of liquid nitrogen cooled to minus 337 degrees Fahrenheit.  A ComEd substation in Irving Park unveiled the new tech Thursday.  “The idea is we can move an incredible amount of power through these small wires if they’re at the correct operating temperature,”  said Mike Ross, managing director of superconductor power systems at American Superconductor.  Thinner wires allows ComEd more flexibility to quickly supply increases in demand. ComEd officials said it will also allow electricity to be rerouted around downed substations and create backup systems to improve recovery and limit power interruptions.

U.S. grid vulnerabilities are being addressed through various avenues.  What’s your take on a unified grid, controlling customer behavior and the latest technology?  What’s your utility's approach to fortifying the grid? 

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