13 Years After Northeast Blackout, U.S. Power Grid Remains Vulnerable
The vulnerability of the U.S. electrical grid was illustrated for 48 hours in August 2003, when the largest blackout in U.S. history left 50 million people in darkness in the Northeast U.S. and parts of Canada. The shutdown contributed to 11 deaths and cost the U.S. economy $10 billion.
Thirteen years later, the U.S. electrical grid remains vulnerable. Decisions at the federal, state, and local levels on electrical infrastructure and markets will affect U.S. domestic security for decades to come. And leadership at all levels continues to lag on this issue. Consider:
Ten years after the Northeast blackout, a rifle attack in San Jose damaged 17 transformers at a power substation. Snipers shot for 19 minutes, causing $15 million in damage.
In Ukraine late last year, 225,000 residents experienced a blackout thanks to a cyberattack. Hackers infiltrated multiple substations and were able to shut off power. What happens if there are such incidents in the U.S.?
High-profile issues being discussed in the presidential campaign include national security, climate change, and our country’s infrastructure. Critical infrastructure could be threatened by volatile weather and changing climate or by direct attack. The U.S. population, like so much of the rest of the world, is increasingly urban; more people than ever live in cities, with their power-hungry devices drawing on our largely unchanged electrical system.
A coordinated attack on just nine of the nation’s 55,000 electrical substations could cause a blackout across the country, a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission report found in 2014.
Through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Energy Department has spent $4.5 billion over the past few years to modernize the electrical grid. Most of that funding, which was more than matched by private dollars, went to “smart grid” efforts, with a notable focus on energy storage and creating stable power in multiple locations. This is just the beginning of what’s needed for infrastructure nationally if the goal is a decentralized (and, ultimately, renewable) electrical grid that ensures power even under extreme conditions.
The power grid is evolving from a one-way delivery system to a multi-directional network. “Virtual power plants,” where many locations work together to mimic the function of a traditional power plant, are an example of the types of projects that would reshape the grid. In New York, more than 300 locations with battery storage and solar are expected to soon provide back-up power for residents and support for the grid. New York is being guided by a statewide plan to enhance renewables and transform the utility system. Where are other states on the path to this transformation?
In January, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a federal rule known as “demand response,” which calls for businesses, schools, and other large electricity consumers who cut back their use at times of peak demand to be paid like power generators….