Sandy hits, power goes out: The grid needs to wise up

A member of the press takes a photo of a flooded street ahead of Hurricane Sandy on October 29, 2012 in Atlantic City, N.J. The power grid is too large, too dependent on distant electricity supplies and not smart enough to pass the hurricane test. The result: long power outages. Upgrading to a more reliable grid will cost billions and take decades.

Lena Hansen at the Rocky Mountain Institute's electricity practice has two problems with today's power grid. One, it's centralized. Power plants far away transmit electricity on long power lines at risk in storms.

And when storms strike, that's when Hanson gets a bit disparaging.

"The grid really isn't very smart," Hansen says. "It's dumb in many ways. Electric companies often can't detect when there's an outage. They frequently rely on us to call them up, and tell them that our power is out."

These days, that "dumb" grid has to take more tests, as in more frequent and unpredictable storms, says Mark Brownstein at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Take the past year in New York.

"We've now been through two different tropical storms, a freak Halloween storm last year that dropped 12 inches of snow on us," Brownstein says, "What we're seeing is the ramifications of a changing climate. And it's posing significant new challenges."

He thinks smarting up and improving the grid will cost more than $1.5 trillion the next two decades. That includes everything from trimming tree limbs to investing in new smart-grid technology to route the power and give consumers and utilities more information about where the electricity is going, when, and at what price.

The big step is to make more power in more places, or what electricity pros call distributed power. Consultant Peter Fox-Penner at the Brattle Group and author of the book "Smart Power" believes that's on the way.

"Solar panels on your house, geothermal heat pumps, small-scale but not home-scale technologies that are nearby," Fox-Penner says. "The less distance the power has to travel, the less vulnerability we will have to power lines coming down.

Making the grid more reliable and smart will take time, he says. There's money, utilities to invest in the future, state and federal regulators and technical standards, to name a few issues. Fox-Penner figures rich countries will take 50 years to graduate from big, centralized power grids.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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