Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Planning Ahead: Securing our Electricity Infrastructure

Recently Carnegie Mellon held it's Third Annual Conference on the Electricity Industry. Focusing on "Ensuring that the Industry Has the Physical and Human Resources Needed for the Next Thirty Years," the conference drew participants from around the world--from Bucharest to Seoul and Brazil to China--and, of course exotic Pittsburgh. (You can read Leonard Hyman's summary of the conference at and review conference proceedings at

Although I found the whole conference compelling, one paper in particular stood out--and no, it wasn't the one I presented. But, first things first.

The first speaker set the tone. Ed Schlesinger, Department Head, Electrical & Computer Engineering, Carnegie Mellon, began by noting that, for the most part, the power is usually on. Our televisions and toasters, microwaves and computers generally work, our gas pumps generally pump, and our lives generally proceed day to day with few interruptions in our power supply. Because everything works so well, the average person has no idea that there are considerable problems in the industry. But, all is not well. And the public needs to know.

That premise--that the public needs to know where things stand in the industry--is critical. It's the premise of my new book, Lights Out: The Electricity Crisis, The Global Economy, and What It Means To You. We need to get the word out that the current situation in the industry is untenable, If we continue waking up each day assuming that the lights will be on and taking no action to ensure that indeed they will continue to shine for years to come, then we're contributing to the problem. As industry professionals, it is our responsibility to talk to more than just each other.

And we have a responsibility to alert the public to potential problems. Indeed, the one topic that stuck out for me is the one that Granger Morgan, Carnegie Mellon, tackled. Morgan reported that The Office of Technology Assessment revealed that terrorists could inflict massive damange to the electricity industry. When did they say that? In 1990! he also noted that a National Research Council (NRC) report from 2002 reported that terrorists could inflict the greatest damage by hitting the electric system. And now, he says that yet another NRC report is on the way.

What do these reports forsee as the primary targets? Well, while the public has nightmares about planes flying into nuclear reactors--which have armed guards and reinforced structures designed to withstand attack, the "juciest" targets are the critical substations scattered around the country, protected only by chain link fences, that ties our grid together.

In Lights Out, I write:

From a grid security and reliability perspective, and for the sake of our functioning electricity markets, I propose that perhaps, just maybe, we should be treating these critical substations like they were nuclear plants. Here it is a little more directly: our regional substations are critical assets that are essential to our national interest and should be viewed and protected as such. There you have it. So far, however, all the talk of change has gone no where fast.

Think about what it might look like if we suffer a coordinated attack on critical's not pretty. I'm in agreement with Morgan that more--much more--attention needs to be paid to the role our electricity system plays in national security. The grid is vulnerable. Very vulnerable. As for planning ahead, we need to take action to stockpile, as Morgan said, equipment, portable transformers, batteries and other local solutions that would enable damaged substations to get back up and running for rapid service restoration. It really is a matter of national security.

For those interested in the full scope of topics addressed, other conference papers ran the gamut. Here are just a few of the issues discussed:

• designing a future grid that can adapt to new technologies as they are developed
• planning for and scheduling reactive power
• pricing and metering
• the market motivations behind bidding and contracting procedures
• monetizing the cost of global warming and the vulnerabilities to attack and energy dependence (my presentation - available at
• structural barriers to reliability
the need for new regulations/definitions of performance and reliability
• retail competition and deregulation
• intelligent two-way troubleshooting
• degrading frequency response standards
• demand side management and energy storage

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