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This is the second installment of our four part article series on the report on the Smart Grid, put out by the U.S. Department of Energy, that delves into this complex subject matter in considerable detail.  The report is titled “The Smart Grid: An Introduction” and is dedicated to the education of all interested members of the public to the nature, challenges and opportunities surrounding the Smart Grid and its implementation.

This installment of our four part article series covers the DOE report’s section that deals with where our current electric grid currently stands and what are the many various risks that our aging grid faces. It provides an important backdrop and argument for why a Smart Grid needs to be built out. In short, it shows that the grid is struggling to keep up, and goes on to show in greater detail about the many ways the grid is at risk and how it can be improved.

The Grid as It Stands: what’s at risk?

Even as demand has skyrocketed, there has been chronic underinvestment in getting energy where it needs to go through transmission and distribution, further limiting grid efficiency and reliability. While hundreds of thousands of high-voltage transmission lines course throughout the United States, only 668 additional miles of interstate transmission have been built since 2000.  As a result, system constraints worsen at a time when outages and power quality issues are estimated to cost American business more than $100 billion on average each year.

This section then goes on to detail other more modern concerns that were not important considerations when our existing electric grid was developed; issues such as energy efficiency, environmental impacts and consumer choice.  It then goes on to point out that there have been five massive blackouts over the past 40 years, three of which have occurred in the past nine years.

It then provides some stark quantification of the scale of the risks associated with an aging grid maladapted to our information age and goes into the different types of challenges that we face.  They are listed below.

EFFICIENCY – If the grid were just 5% more efficient, the energy savings would equate to permanently eliminating the fuel and greenhouse gas emissions from 53 million cars.

NATIONAL ECONOMY – The numbers are staggering and speak for themselves. For example, a rolling blackout across Silicon Valley totaled $75 million in losses.  This loss was caused by one single rolling blackout event.  Another good example is that the Northeast blackout of 2003 resulted in a $6 billion economic loss to the region.

AFFORDABILITY – As rate caps come off in state after state, the cost of electricity has doubled or more in real terms. Less visible but just as harmful are the costs associated with an underperforming grid that is borne by every citizen.

SECURITY – When the blackout of 2003 occurred – the largest in US history – those citizens not startled by being stuck in darkened,  or suffocating in elevators, turned their thoughts toward terrorism. And not without cause. The grid’s centralized structure leaves us open to attack.  In fact, the interdependencies of various grid components can bring about a domino effect – a cascading series of failures that could bring our nation’s banking, communications, traffic, and security systems among others to a complete standstill.

ENVIRONMENT/CLIMATE CHANGE – The United States accounts for only 4% of the world’s population and produces 25% of its greenhouse gases. Half of our country’s electricity is still produced by burning coal, a rich domestic resource but a major contributor to global warming. If we are to reduce our carbon footprint, and stake a claim to global environmental leadership, clean, renewable sources of energy like solar, wind and geothermal must be integrated into the nation’s grid.

GLOBAL COMPETITIVENESS – Germany is leading the world in the development and implementation of photo-voltaic solar power. Japan has similarly moved to the forefront of distribution automation through its use of advanced battery storage technology. The European Union has an even more aggressive “Smart Grids” agenda, a major component of which has buildings functioning as power plants. We cannot afford to be left behind.   We risk losing our prosperity and facing an irrevocable decline as a great power, consigned to increasing global irrelevance as a “has been” super power, while the advanced world moves on without us.

See Related Posts, to read the other posts in this series

© 2009, Chris de Morsella. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: Chris de Morsella (146 Articles)

After a decade performing as a lead guitarist for rock bands, Chris de Morsella decided to return to the career his uncle mentored him in as a youth....Software Engineering. Since that time he has thrown himself into his work. He has designed a compound document publishing architecture for regulatory submissions capable of handling very large multi-document FDA regulatory drug approval submissions, for Liquent, a division of Thompson Publishing. At the Associated Press, Chris worked with senior editors at facilities around the world, to develop a solution for replacing existing editorial systems with an integrated international content management solution. He lead the design effort at Microsoft for a help system for mobile devices designed to provide contextual help for users. Chris also helped to develop the web assisted installer for LifeCam2.0, the software for Microsoft’s web cam and developed late breaking features for the product He also served with the Rhapsody client team to redesign and build a major new release of Real Networks Rhapsody client product. His most recent assignment has been Working with the Outlook Mobile Time Management team for the next release of Outlook Mobile for the SmartPhone. Chris' interests are in green building and architecture, smart grid, the cloud, geo-thermal energy, solar energy, smart growth, organic farming and permaculture. Follow Chris on Twitter.