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Antiquated Electric Grid Needs a Reboot


Electric companies played soothsayer to customers days before Hurricane Sandy’s arrival. They warned of extensive power failure and potential widespread outages. Their predictions were accurate and Sandy affected an immense number of customers in New York and New Jersey.

Sadly, none of the power outages resulting from Sandy should be surprising. The hurricane only served to highlight an existing, and increasingly, well-known issue – the US power grid is incredibly sensitive to extreme weather events, and climate change is likely a cause of these increasing number of extreme weather events.

The antiquated electric grid within an ageing US infrastructure is beginning to show its age. In fact, during any hurricane or major storm, outages most often result from cascading impacts from a single outage rather than falling trees or debris.

One challenge researchers and analysts have identified is that the grid is different in various areas of the country, so there’s no one-size-fits-all solution that can be initiated to prevent a large scale catastrophe. Each area much have a strategy and solution unto itself.

Smart meters, which act as remote sensors and alert utility companies to outages, provide a virtual map of outages and anticipate and predict issues, are now used to aid grid resiliency. These are helping and may be a first step.

But avoiding the damage altogether may begin with living off the grid, or at least reducing dependency on it. Microgrids, systems that generate the majority of their own power and are not slaves to the cascade effects that shut down larger systems, have recently proved their value. In fact, during Hurricane Sandy, Co-Op City in the Bronx, on a microgrid, kept power when the rest of New York City and its boroughs went dark. Microgrids may be crucial in finding a solution because they can offset some of the pressure on the grid and often withstand outages.

It’s obvious that consumers and utility companies must work together to find a viable solution to maintain a healthy and resilient grid. A natural first step by both consumers and companies is weighing the costs and benefits to find a solution that will bring about long-term change, produce a healthier more stable electric grid, and is cost effective enough to be an attractive long-term solution.

[via Scientific American]

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