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The Power Grid Must Change

Paul Kando

As the globe warms, tropical storms become more powerful and the resulting damage affects primarily the transmission network — poles, wires, transformers — not power generation. Power outages affected tens of thousands of utility customers in Texas in Harvey’s wake. As I write, days after Irma blew through, five million Floridians are still without power.

'Changed' high voltage electrical wires
photo credit: the internet

As the seas warm, severe storm impacts are unlikely to be limited to southern states. In 2012 Hurricane Sandy slammed into New Jersey and the New York metro area, flooding railway and highway tunnels and knocking out power through a wide swath of two states, including much of New York City. Satellite data document a warming trend across the Gulf of Maine. Over the last 33 years, the Gulf has warmed by an average of 0.72°F per decade, a 2.23°F cumulative rise. However from July through September — height of the Atlantic hurricane season — the warming rate has been twice as high: 1.44°F per decade or a 4.46°F rise over the 33 years. The only time of year Gulf of Maine surface temperatures haven’t increased in recent decades is February—March, and then only in a small section of the central gulf. Furthermore, summer conditions in the Gulf now start earlier and end later, extending the period of Maine’s potential tropical storm season.

Maine will not be immune to disruptive hurricane landfalls much longer, as only cold waters can mitigate the intensity of an arriving storm. When exposure to accidents, hacking and other sabotage are added in, the true dimensions of our conventional, centralized power grid’s vulnerability become undeniable.

What to do? Learn from the 19th century beginnings of electrification, with local “municipal light” companies creating their own local distribution grids around local generation plants powered by water or coal. Later rural electric cooperatives repeated this process. The result: a number of autonomous local grids – when one went down the others stayed on. Only much later did these grow together into grids serving whole regions from central power stations, eventually connected into a national power grid. A large grid offers lots of advantages, but it also increases collective vulnerability: there is no local grid to stay on when the transmission infrastructure is disrupted.

Today new technologies – microgrids built on locally generated solar power, energy storage and smart controls – enable increased grid resiliency by decentralization, without giving up the strengths of an interconnected larger grid. The key to a resilient, secure power supply is the modern “islandable” microgrid, which has its own renewable power supply and energy storage. It can function both as a “customer” of the centralized grid and be disconnected – “islanded” — from it when the larger grid goes down.

Let’s protect Maine’s electric power supply as part of a larger effort to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Let’s dispense with climate-denier public officials — they hold us back to our peril. Let’s solarize — every solar-powered house with ample energy storage is an “islandable” microgrid that benefits everyone on the larger grid. Let’s work together for laws that favor community microgrids.