Power Infrastructure Lessons From Hurricane Sandy

An IEEE senior member weighs in on the problems with today’s power grids

12 December 2012

During the 10-day stretch without power that my parents in central New Jersey experienced following Hurricane Sandy, my mother vented her frustration to me about the U.S. power infrastructure. She recalled the first time her mother visited from Poland in the early 1980s a few years after my parents immigrated to the United States.

“What are all those tall, ugly power lines doing all over the place here?” said my grandmother to my mother. That’s because in Poland, she said many of the power lines are buried underground. So I can understand how it was perplexing for my grandmother to see so many of them protruding above the ground in the United States. My mother wondered why, after three decades, this situation still existed. Of course, underground power lines are just one idea for improving the U.S. power infrastructure. And doing so comes with its own problems such as the high cost of installation, which experts have estimated as costing between US $500 000 to a few million per mile, plus areas with underground lines aren’t totally immune to outages. After all, the power generation stations could get flooded, which also happened during the hurricane.

Hurricane Sandy’s effect on the power grid in the Northeast United States, as well as other recent disasters like the massive power outages in India in July, have led experts to bring up a recurring topic: how can countries improve their aging power infrastructures? [Read about the historic power outage and effects the storm had on IEEE in last week’s blog post.]

Among the experts discussing this issue is IEEE Senior Member Massoud Amin, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis. Amin is also a member of the IEEE Computer Society’s Task Force on Security and Privacy and directed security-related R&D at the Electric Power Research Institute, in Palo Alto, Calif., in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Amin was recently interviewed about the power outages caused by Hurricane Sandy on Go Green Radio, a station on the Internet radio program VoiceAmerica. He spoke about the implications of the outages, what U.S. utilities need to do to improve their infrastructure, and how green energy alternatives and the smart grid could go a long way in preventing or at least minimizing future outages.

“The current North American electric power grid is an amazing marvel of engineering for the 20th century, but we need to bring it up to 21st century standards to support our increasingly digital economy,” he said. “The existing system—if you think of it as an end-to-end system from fuel source, generation, high voltage generation, transmission, and end use—is vulnerable to natural disasters and intentional attacks. This leads to adverse impacts on national security, economy, and the lives of every citizen.”

He added that although the utility industry has worked for decades to make the power system more reliable, “the amount of capacity—both generation and transmission—has been diminishing since the 1980s, and we are extracting more and more out of existing infrastructure without investing in it.

“We need to invest in it to make it stronger, smarter, and more secure, and in the process that leads to economic growth and job development, because electricity underpins GDP growth,” he said.

Amin points out that although it’s necessary to build a more resilient infrastructure, there’s no such thing as designing a system with “zero failure.”  “While we can’t guarantee everything will stand up to Mother Nature, what a smarter and stronger grid would do is make the size of outages smaller,” he said.

What would it require to build a better power system? The answer is twofold. “We need both microgrids…as well as a stronger and smarter high voltage backbone to efficiently integrate intermittent renewable resources,” Amin said. “Currently, North America has 450 000 miles of high voltage lines (100 000 volts and higher) and we need to increase that by 9 percent—or 42 000 miles—which would cost about $2 million per mile, or $82 billion.” Although it’s certainly a hefty investment, making such improvements would enable the integration of electricity generated from renewable sources, such as wind or solar. “We also need a smarter grid with security built in, such as local microgrids with their own local sources and small generators… in order to make them as self sufficient and efficient locally.” [Read about IEEE’s work on the smart grid in “The Smart Grid: A Primer,” part of our December 2010 special issue on the topic].

Again, such a twofold endeavor would certainly be expensive, but Amin said it would be well worth it in the end. “The total cost is about $30 billion a year for 20 years, but the benefits of such a stronger and smarter system far outweigh the costs,” he said. “Currently we experience outages that in a slow year cause about $80 billion a year in economic losses, and that doesn’t include infrastructure destruction. All in all, the benefits of reduced outages and increased efficiency amounts to [a savings of] $70 billion per year.”

Do you agree with Amin? What do you think your country should do to improve its power infrastructure, and is it worth the investment?

Photo: iStockphoto

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