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After storm, power sector at crossroads

I'd like to share a few more thoughts on Hurricane Sandy and the devastation wrought by the storm. 

First, I'll just curate a few of the articles that addressed Hurricane Sandy's impact on the electric grid. Then I'll outline the simple logic of action.

"Hurricane Sandy Utility Outages May Be Worsened by Underinvestment, Lack of Planning," in the Huffington Post certainly hits the obvious points I made yesterday that smart grid technologies need to be evaluated after storm events to justify future investment, just as strategies, processes and practices need analysis to develop best practices. 

But the article's value came in the form of a specific suggestion that design parameters should be revisited as extreme weather events make re-evaluation prudent. Design parameters that take into account a century of geologic history might fall within a rational cost-benefit scenario and that needs to be explored.   

CNN/Money's "Hurricane Sandy Puts Power Grids to the Test," simply delivered a litany of the damage done to grid components and the resulting power outages, leaving open the question of whether hardening through improved design might have helped. A round-up of damage done isn't helpful in and of itself.  

In National Journal's Global Security Newswire's "Sandy Showed Nuclear Plants' Vulnerability to Weather, Sabotage," the storm's effect on nuclear plants in its path was described as much the same as at Fukushima in Japan: without power, critical cooling systems don't operate, especially important in the pools that house spent fuel. Getting past this event without taking some remedial steps would be idiotic.   

Time magazine's "Hurricane Sandy Will Put a Rickety Power Grid to the Test," reviewed the procession of extreme storms over the past year, noted that one utility had arranged for more outside help this time and spent considerably more on vegetation management - and still got walloped. The story raised the issue of the cost and difficulty of undergrounding, but did not mention examples of jurisdictions where undergrounding has been accomplished incrementally at bearable costs over time - the obvious way to execute on that strategy. 

GreenTechMedia's "Can Smart Grid Limit Power Outages?" asked all the questions and provided no hint at the answers, as it merely noted grid modernization efforts at utilities both in and outside of harm's way. Not much there.

My take on the media effort is that raising the questions is certainly a duty, but given the pressures that will resume after the storm is mopped up, follow-up for answers and actions must be demanded by all stakeholders. After all, good answers should take time, but not so much time that complacency has reasserted itself. 

In the wake of the 2003 blackout in the Northeast, a U.S.-Canadian panel convened over the causes and made a finite number of recommendations that in some cases are only just coming to fruition now, a decade later. 

When the German insurance company, Munich re, is placing what amounts to bets that extreme weather will become more frequent and commonplace in North America, we lack the time and the luxury to bicker over the matter. We need timely and honest analysis of best practices in strategy, processes and practices and we need a hard look at smart grid investments and their relationship to grid resiliency to apply those findings within far less than a decade.

Really, folks, how hard is that?  

The other piece, as I mentioned yesterday, is looking at root causes. If the best science implicates anthropogenic climate change (yes, man-made global warming), some resources need to be allocated accordingly. That will be far more divisive than dealing with effects of extreme weather, but failure to do so will be failure of our society. Instead of fantasizing about a global conspiracy to fake everyone out, how about a simple conversation about what rational, economically sustainable steps might mitigate root causes of extreme weather? 

Or we can take the periodic beatings and pay the higher cost of "cure" versus prevention and grid hardening. Here is one of our new tests as a nation: do we have the honesty, the political will and the maturity to identify and address threats to the grid in a cost-effective manner? While recognizing that it's all about resiliency, our ability to recover and learn from our mistakes?  

We all know that extreme environmental events cannot be avoided. We know that no amount of spending can mitigate all risk. But if Hurricane Sandy's effects, coming as they do on the heels of two other grid-smashing events in the past 12 months, doesn't lead to more intelligent allocation of resources and a correspondingly higher value for electricity and its reliability in order to avoid even more costly and destructive events, then we relinquish our leadership role in the world and slink into second-rate status. 

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily

Dan Wilson's picture

Thank Dan for the Post!

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