America’s electrical grid is extremely insecure

Electricity gives us Americans a material standard of living that, a century ago, would have seemed like a utopia imagined by H.G. Wells.

Most of us have access to air conditioning, thermostat-controlled heat, electric clothes washers and dryers, electric dishwashers, cable television,  home computers, cell phones and Internet access.

This is made possible by one of the world’s most complex machines—a continent-spanning system of interconnected generators, transformers and 300,000 miles of wires.

 We take this for granted—until the electric grid fails.  Unfortunately, failures are becoming more frequent and longer-lasting.

Source: OilPrice

Some of the reasons are found The Grid: the Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future by Gretchen Bakke (2016).

The average American is without electric power six hours a year, compared to 51 minutes in Italy, 16 minutes in Korea, 15 minutes in Germany and 11 minutes in Japan, Bakke wrote.  The White House itself lost power twice during the George W. Bush administration and twice more during the Obama administration.

Our electrical grid is aging and, in many places, poorly maintained.  About 70 percent of the grid’s transformers and transmission lines are more than 25 years old.   In 2005, one fifth of generating plants were more than 50 years old.   Just as with an automobile, the older electrical equipment is, the most it costs to keep it going.

The main reason for this is the change in the way electric power is regulated.   Before the Energy Policy Act, which was enacted in 1992 and went into effect in 2001, electric utilities were regulated monopolies, with a legal responsibility to guarantee availability of electricity, in return for a guaranteed profit.   There was no reason for a utility not to spend all the money necessary to keep the grid in tip-top shape because they were sure to get it back.

The EPA broke up the grid into (1) producers of electricity, (2) long-distance transmitters of electricity and (3) distributors of electricity.   Supply and demand, not regulators, determined electricity prices.  The idea was that this would open up the grid to new and creative sources of energy.

Suddenly it was possible for a U.S. electric company to go broke.   There was an incentive to cut costs, including maintenance costs.

The most common cause of power outages in foliage—usually in the form of wires coming in contact with tree limbs.   Another common cause is squirrels.   Both the New York Stock Exchange and the NASDAQ exchange have been shut down by squirrels chewing on wires.

After EPA, many utilities stretched out their tree-trimming schedules to save money.  FirstEnergy, an Ohio utility, drastically cut back on its tree-trimming schedule, didn’t even come close to meeting the new schedule and laid off 500 skilled maintenance workers.

The following year three FirstEnergy power lines sagged onto treetops.   That, and a computer bug, created a spreading power outage that left 50 million people in eight states without power for three days.   Bakke described in detail how this happened.   Economists estimate that the outage subtracted $6 billion from the U.S. Gross Domestic Product for that year.

Electric power went out here in Rochester, N.Y., during severe windstorms last March.   More than 900 electric utility poles were down.   More than 10 percent of Rochester Gas & Electric utility poles were at least 60 years old, making them more brittle in strong winds, the Democrat and Chronicle reported; the utility promised in 2011 to aggressively replace them, but did not follow through.

There’s a great deal of concern about the vulnerability of the U.S. electric grid to terrorist attacks.  In 2013, Bakke wrote, a vanload of masked men with submachine guns shot up a substation that supplies much of Silicon Valley with its electricity.  They expertly destroyed 17 of the station’s transformers, then drove away.  They were never caught.   But so far terrorists have been less of a threat than windstorms and copper thieves.

Bakke said many institutions are securing themselves against power failure by “islanding”—building their own generators and arranging to sever themselves from the grid during emergencies.  These include military bases, universities, hospitals, prisons and computer-intensive industrial sites that require uninterruptible power supplies.

Neighbors in some places are doing the same thing informally.   They pool resources—diesel generators, propane stoves, batteries, candles, wood for fireplaces—and find diverse resources enable them to get by.

Absolute energy security is impossible, Bakke stated.   The best that can be hoped for is to have a resilient system drawing energy from many sources and by many routes, so that no local failure can take out a wide system.   The problem is not so much a technical one as one of aligning economic incentives.   A resilient system has to be in the interest of the utility companies, their customers and all other stakeholders.   Easier said than done.

A Footnote on Reliability.   [Added 9/4/2017]

Gretchen Bakke’s vision of the future of the electrical grid is that more institutions and municipalities will develop their own sources of electricity, both for emergencies and to sell on the grid.

As time goes on, centralized electric power generation would be partly or wholly replaced by “microgrids”.   This would increase the reliability of the system.

Electricity would be transported shorter distances, creating fewer points of possible failure.    Because there would be more sources of power, the failure of any single power sources or transmission line would have less impact.   Because the generating plants would be run by institutions that depend on the power supply, the operators would have a personal stake in making the system more reliable.

I don’t think this is good enough.

Bakke said the electric grid is a public good, like the highway system.   We the public long ago learned that privately owned toll roads are no substitute for public roads.   Maybe we need to replace the privately owned electrical transmission system with a publicly owned system.

We the public would have equal access to the grid.  Buyers and sellers would be free to make their own deals, without some other profit=seeking entity acting as gatekeeper.


Another potential problem is the mismatch between the grid’s need for a predictable energy supply and the variable nature of wind and solar energy.   I will write about this in my next post.


Aging and Unstable, the Nation’s Electrical Grid Is ‘The Weakest Link’, interviews with Gretchen Bakke for National Public Radio.  [Added 9/4/2017]

Aging US. Power Grid Blacks Out More Than Any Other Developed Nation by Meagan Clark for International Business Times.

What Will You Do When the Lights Go Out?  The Inevitable Failure of the US Grid by Julianne Geiger for OilPrice.


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One Response to “America’s electrical grid is extremely insecure”

  1. williambearcat Says:

    Thanks for giving me something more to worry about


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