The Future Depends On Power. A New Way of Power.

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Issue 8, Volume 112

By Rania Zaki 

It seems far-fetched that our bright-eyed city would lose its power. After all, outlets are always within reach, empty office buildings are always lit, and Stuyvesant is bright through the night. But continuing the status quo of power-hungry cities fueled by fossil fuels is a ticking time bomb due to climate change.

In response, climate change activists have targeted the way that power is created in our modern world. The current aim is to generate power producing no carbon emissions––or zero-carbon power––as quickly as possible. But the fact is that even if the United States were to rely only on zero-carbon energy, our poorly developed power grid would make it impossible to use.

Renewable energy, most notably wind and solar power, requires vast amounts of land and optimal weather conditions (think California and Nevada). As a result, solar and wind farms are typically located far from the cities they serve. This distance requires moving electricity hundreds of miles via high-tension wires one sometimes sees driving on interstate highways. But the US doesn’t have the infrastructure to support this habit on a larger scale. If the US plans to decarbonize by 2050, it would have to triple the current transmission infrastructure, producing more lines, generators, and optimizing its grid in general.

Even the current grid isn’t a great base to start from. Many of the electrical lines powering our society are weathering, old, and well into the second half of their lifespans, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. Gretchen Bakke, author of “The Grid,” sums it up perfectly: “The grid [is] really this bottleneck between some sort of vision of a strong––a strongly renewable powered future and what we've got right now because it's the grid that is the weakest link.” It’s like trying to generate lemonade from a few dried up seeds.

At the forefront of the current power grid’s successors is the smart grid, which aims to interconnect separate grids and better adapt to service and demand. Using sensors and controllers known as Phasor Measurement Units (PMU), the smart grid can make automatic adjustments to maximize efficiency. It manages power demand, making use of renewable energy when it’s most abundant and preventing energy shortages. By constantly measuring the energy levels at different points on the grid, it can quickly sense imbalances and intervene when there is less power than needed, preventing blackouts.

Additionally, many smart grid models use a microgrid structure, which is able to manage power to small communities while still being connected to the larger network. This system’s largest benefit lies in preventing a region-wide blackout like the one in Texas last February. If a line in a county of Texas went down in, the smart grid would isolate it so the blackout stays within that small area instead of cascading more widely by automatically, instead of manually, preventing areas close to the blackout from being overly stressed trying to compensate for power loss.

However, smart grids have a critical vulnerability. By connecting all electrical networks to computer networks and thus to the Internet, there is a heightened risk for disastrous cyberattacks, which is made even greater considering the lack of cybersecurity and emergency response systems in the current grid. In 2018, Russia infiltrated US power plants using decade-old tactics like phishing that targeted the human portions of digital systems. Upgrading the current electrical grid would also require great strides in cybersecurity to preserve the integrity of the smart grid and its functions.

Implementing a smart grid, even locally, is a challenge, but expanding it globally poses a greater issue. America has the ability to build and expand infrastructure much faster than it currently is. For example, the significant development of natural gas pipelines raises questions about our country’s inability to construct electrical lines. From 2010 to 2019, the U.S. added 107,400 miles of gas pipelines mainly because the federal government has streamlined the process by reducing bureaucratic hurdles; unlike other types of infrastructure, which might require federal, state, and local approval, a gas pipeline requires only an agency stamp from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Expanding electric transmission is much more complicated: if a company wants to build a new transmission line, it must secure the buy-ins of each state and local agency that the line passes through. This status quo—in which it’s easy to build new fossil-fuel infrastructure but very difficult to build new electricity infrastructure—promotes the use of nonrenewable resources that damage the environment.

We have already seen the impacts of climate change, from the wildfires in California to the rising temperatures globally. And without an infrastructure to support zero-carbon energy, the future of power relies on aging lines, weak cybersecurity, and fossil fuels, all which stresses yet hinders the urgency of implementing the smart grid. Once expanded, the smart grid will promise resilience for the future. And in doing so, the country will be making the segue to an efficient system where the consumer can essentially participate in generating power, communicate demand, and rely on efficient zero-carbon providers.