By Mike Mulvihill
Wind Power. Renewable Energy. Green Economy. There is an awesome amount of momentum in the America right now around all of these topics. We’re on the cusp of real change in how we create the gobs of energy we increasingly consume in a manner that is kinder and gentler to Mother Earth.
One problem – we have a power grid infrastructure (i.e., those big transmission lines that cut across the landscape), once the best in the world, that has gone neglected for many years. The current system was built for few big energy on-ramps (like coal-fired power plants and nukes) not a lot of small, variable energy outputs like the on ramps needed for renewable energy sources like wind, solar, hydro, geothermal and biomass. Expanding and updating the transmission system is perhaps the most contentious project you could ever undertake. They are often ensnarled in protests and lawsuits so it takes decades to build even small additions to the grid. And the current transmission grid is far from smart right now.
We’re making progress. Last week President Obama cut loose $3.4 billion dollars worth of stimulus money to roll out the American smart grid. Realistically, $3.4 billion is just a drop in the bucket, but it’s a move in the right direction.
According to ABB, one of the major players in the power transmission game, North America is “not close” to developing a true smart grid. ABB CEO Enrique Santacan, cut a YouTube video where he says:
- The process of developing and implementing the smart grid is just starting in North America.
- Lots of old equipment will have to be replaced.
- And, many new automation technologies will have to be deployed in order to get there.
According to Dean Anderson’s blog the DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory defines a smart grid as having the following characteristics:
- Self-healing from power disturbance events
- Enabling active participation by consumers in demand response • Operating resiliently against physical and cyber-attack
- Providing power quality for 21st century needs
- Accommodating all generation and storage options
- Enabling new products, services, and markets
- Optimizing assets and operating efficiently
If you saw this weekend’s 60 Minutes broadcast. we should all be greatly concerned about creating a smart grid that is resilient to cyber-attack. In typical 60 Minutes style, our electrical grid was “exposed” as a prime target for cyber terrorism potentially dropping our nation into darkness and confusion. More alarming was the interview that pointed out that some of the components damaged in a cyber or physical attack could take four months to replace. (I once spent 11 days without power due to an ice storm. I can’t imagine what four months would be like!) Remember that in 2003, a simple tree limb on a power line in Ohio resulted in a power failure that in mere seconds enveloped the Midwest to Broadway in darkness.
It will take time to develop a smart grid system designed to be more like your office and home wireless LAN but less susceptible to hacking.
Patrick Mazza’s blog on Grist from more than 27 months ago pointed out that “It’s time to bring the grid into the foreground because it positions at the exact center of the world’s most crucial issue, global climate change.”
Two years later, we’re enthralled with harnessing wind and solar, but all that excitement won’t get us far if we don’t address the much more mundane but essential infrastructure needed to turn all that excitement into real progress.