Last week’s disaster is a stark reminder that modern civilization is very dependent on electricity. Many issues were unique to the Lone Star State such as the lack of winterization or the isolated, deregulated nature of Texas’ grid. But grid problems are not unique to Texas, and the disaster in Texas should serve as a reminder that America desperately needs to modernize the grid.
America’s grid is antiquated and in dire need of an upgrade. Most of it was built in the 1950s and 60s with a 50-year life expectancy. The grid’s aging is having serious negative effects. The United States currently has more blackouts than any other developed country and one report found a tenfold increase in major power outages between the 1980s and 2012. It’s no wonder that the American Civil Society of Engineering gave U.S. energy infrastructure a D+. That’s frankly embarrassing for the world’s richest and most powerful nation, a nation blessed with an abundance of energy resources. And as we just saw in Texas, power failures are not just an inconvenience, they can cost lives.
One solution would be to build a smart supergrid. The “super” refers to the fact that the entire country would be on a single grid, as opposed to the three grids that exist now: the Eastern Interconnection, the Western Interconnection and ERCOT. This would allow power to be easily moved from one part of the country to another in response to problems. The fact that El Paso, which is part of the West Interconnection instead of ERCOT, fared far better than the rest of Texas shows the benefits of interconnectedness. China and Europe have ambitious plans for their own supergrids, and the United States should not let itself fall behind.
Connecting the continental United States into one supergrid would give unique benefits to Texas. The abundant wind power in Texas could be exported throughout the country, something that would be very useful as the world transitions away from fossil fuels.
But linking America’s grid isn’t going to be enough. The grid needs to be made “smart” with modern sensors, computers and communication technology. This would allow power to be delivered more efficiently and reliably while also reducing the frequency and duration of blackouts. For example, under a smart grid, sensors could automatically report outages and automated feeder switches would reroute power around the problem.
A smart supergrid is not just key to reducing blackouts, it’s also an important part of the fight against climate change. Renewables provide intermittent power, but this could be mitigated by a single grid that could easily transfer power from areas that are producing plenty of energy to areas that aren’t. For example , the east coast could receive solar power at night from the west coat. And if the grid is smart it can efficiently manage the distribution of renewable energy. A smart grid could do things to incorporate weather forecast data into planning or store excess energy in batteries for later use.
The benefits of a better grid are not insignificant. One study found that grid modernization could reduce CO2 emissions by up to 35 megatons while saving consumers at least $3.6 billion a year. The study was suppressed by the Trump administration, who feared the supergrid could kill the coal industry.
A single grid with lots of interconnected information technology raises concerns about cyberattacks. But these fears may be overblown. It’s one thing to hack infrastructure, but to actually cause damage one needs to cross the logic-physical divide. In other words, a hacker that gains access to the grids computer systems would need extensive knowledge of its physical systems to cause significant damage outside of cyberspace. It’s not impossible to bridge the divide, but only the most sophisticated attacks can do so. There’s only one known instance of a successful cyberattack on a power grid, which occurred when hackers disrupted electricity production in Ukraine. That was believed to be the work of the Russian government, a state actor with very sophisticated cyber capabilities, and even then it only affected .015% of Ukraine’s daily electricity consumption for no more than six hours. A nation-state like Russia is unlikely to attempt such an attack on the United States as they could expect to suffer retaliation.
Modernizing the grid will not be cheap but it is necessary. Fortunately, an opportunity has arisen as President Biden has proposed a massive $2 trillion infrastructure plan. While the details have not been hashed out, the grid should and likely will be a major part of Biden’s infrastructure policy. Infrastructure is one of the few issues where there’s bipartisanship; Trump also believed that America’s infrastructure was in bad shape and pledged to spend $1 trillion fixing it (although he failed to deliver). A smart super grid would not only avoid the kinds of blackouts we saw in Texas, it would be better than what we had before.
If Biden wants to “build back better,” the grid isn’t a bad place to start.
Photo: NASA Earth Observatory / Wikimedia Commons